BOOK REVIEWS - ALASKANA
Noden, Walter, ALASKA SALMON AND SAIL. Vantage Press Softbound 130 pages. $8.95
Noden is a natural- born story teller. He invites us into his little unpainted cabin on the Nushagak River of Bristol Bay, pours us a mug of homebrew, invites us to lean back on the sofa and proceeds to tell the story of his life. Well, not everything, but the exciting bits. And those are very exciting indeed.
Born in 1919 on the river to a Yu’pik mother and Scotch-Irish father, his first few years followed the traditional rounds of fishing, berry-picking, trapping and general subsistence. He remembers as a very small boy living on Hagemeister Island and "...the fully contented feeling I had sleeping with my dad and mother under those wool blankets on a reindeer mattress, with the surf making its own music in harmony with the wind whistling over the rocky shore."
Like most Alaskans of the day, Walter had various careers, sometimes overlapping, of commercial pilot, fisher, trapper, and bootlegger. He has the unsentimental, pragmatic yet very humanist view well laced with black humor that enables humans to survive in harsh environments and circumstances. Almost anything can and does make a funny story, from carrying a naked corpse through the snow to crashing an airplane or two to various ship wrecks; all grist for a good Alaskan mill.
Hardships are not dwelled upon; his father died when Walter was eleven. He tells us that, but immediately goes into how he watched his mother expose the field mice food caches but always leave most of the cache for the mice. They moved to Dillingham and his mother remarried. His stepfather didn’t believe in much education so Walter moved into a horrible little hotel in town for high school. He worked for his room-and-board; typically he writes about sluicing out the awful partying rooms by throwing buckets of hot water mixed with lye and soap and running away.
We’re not told how he met his beloved Florence, his wife of 59 years, or about the 11 children they had or the rough times; just the funny ones.
The last part of the book is a succession of good stories involving outhouses, funerals, (a tipsy group of mourners stand around the grave, one falls in and another shouts, "One at a time, boys! One at a time!"), the wine waterbed, cats, the six-legged moose, how the old people dealt with bad men, and other tales that could happen only in Alaska.
Walter is going strong; he’s taken up gold prospecting now and is sure fortune is just around the corner. Should that happen, this reviewer is convinced he’d give most of it away to charity after throwing a really good party.
Multiple copies are recommended; one for you and the others for people who wonder how the old-timers did it.