Lester, Jean, Faces Of Alaska: from Barrow to Ketchikan. Tanana Historical Society and Poppies Publishing. Illustrated by the author. Tall softbound. 182 pp, including index. $29.95
Lester is an artist who has lived in Alaska many years. This longevity shows in the selection of the twenty-two she interviewed; all longtime or life-long Alaskans selected from across the state. Southeast contributes Margaret Calvin, Dale De Armond, George Rogers, Harriet Jackson Schirmer and Don Schirmer . Each oral history is preceded by the authorís portrait of the person. There is a nice variety of occupations from physician to Native activist to economist to priest, union member and more.
Here the compliments nearly stop. To do a good oral history, the focus of the interview must be thought out by the interviewer. "Tell me all about your life" is an impossible request. What part of life? The mistakes, the embarrassments, the enemies? The progression of life; childhood, marriage, old age? The rise and success or fall of a career? Trying to ask all of these, as Lester apparently did, is to risk winding up with a bland "good times, bad times; on the whole itís been good" response, which all too often happens here.
Interestingly, the Natives come across as the best, most likely because they come from a true oral history background where the collective wisdom and knowledge must be distilled for each new generation. The children must learn from this telling if they are to know their history at all. Therefore the strong recollections of the parents and grandparents, the honest appraisal of tragedy as well as the best moments of life. This tradition of summing up adds to the knowledge of the tribe; an act that goes back thousands of years.
The non-Natives reflect the western culture of recounting their assessment as adults of their parentsí lives, glossing over their own experiences and coming out with their own philosophies in the reflections and ruminations of old age. As life comes to an end, why was it lived and what lessons have been learned? From this we may perhaps learn something in shaping our own philosophies, notorious though it is that Life, not writing, teaches.
The introductions to the pieces are quite uneven. Fine to say, "her large garden speaks of care and imagination" but odd to mention an interviewee as "all of about four-feet-eight-inches tall", and downright puzzling to write of another as "...she moves constantly or in words, as we communicate more intuitively than verbally." And calling someone "an elf printing a fairy tale" is not only tasteless but a strange description of a successful printer and publisher.
The portraits are as uneven. Why are some drawn at such odd angles?
As to the photographs; they are strictly of family interest. Many are undated or inappropriate. What does a 1904 Sitka hay wagon and scow have to do with Dale De Armond? Or tourists sighting a bear in Denali Park in 1920 with Helen Rhode? Given the lack of dates, the outsider will surely form an odd opinion of Sitka, Unalakleet, and McGrath.
The above may seem like trifling objections, but being accurate and careful is one of the obligations of writing history. And so is the necessity of approaching it with a clear focus. Why should someone other than the interviewees and relatives want to spend $30.00, or $50.00 for the hardbound book? I havenít the faintest idea.