Isto, Sarah Crawford, Good Company: A Mining Family in Fairbanks, Alaska. University of Alaska Press. Softbound. 246 pages plus index. Black-and-white photographs. $24.95.
Even for Alaska Fairbanks is remarkable. The rest of us can see why people live in remote areas of the Interior; they are either in their ancestral home village or solitary sorts who enjoy living off the land. But why do they live in a city where you can frost your lungs in the winter just going to the store for a loaf of bread? This charming memoir of Fairbanks in the 1950s and ‘60s provides part of the answer.
Isto is careful to state she is not writing a community history, but her father was a mining engineer and later general manager with the FE Company, the firm that restored the gold rush town’s fortunes by using dredges to mine gold. Also, various relatives came to Fairbanks, so the extended Crawford family was a good part of local history from the 1920s until the late 1960s.
Life on the mining creeks outside town during the summer for children was delicious freedom to explore, pick berries, admire and beware of wildlife, and generally roll in the grass and play twenty-four hours a day while the grown-ups worked before they could play.
In winter, among other cultural pursuits, her mother held a weekly "at home". Guests could take five minutes to divest mukluks, wool stockings, and extra wool headscarves to reveal their socially proper tea-gowns, heels, hose, and white gloves.
The real flavor of the book is in the writing. The author discusses the lessons of honesty, kindness, civic duty, and the work ethic her mother and other women taught their children by examples, then summarizes "...to be reasonably clean once a day, and to work out differences with others while avoiding serious verbal or physical injury. But we were not asked to achieve high-status goals: to be smarter, prettier, or more athletic than our classmates. Our parents did not press vicarious ambitions on us, and we gave little thought to the longings of our parents."
Of her older sister, Jane, when she was a junior in high school. "Jim was engrossed in work, so it was Alta who made sure that Jane knew how to build a wood fire, shoot a rifle, drive a car, behave on a date, and use proper etiquette in formal situations."
At the obligatory teas, women not only had to balance teacups and sit decorously, but chat. "Appropriate conversation included weather, recipes, kindly gossip, upcoming social events, and compliments on clothing. Politics, religion, money, and emotional turmoil were reserved for kitchens, coffee mugs, and a few trusted friends."
On an all-female road trip with her mother and sister. "A hotel that seemed quiet when we rented a room at 7 pm erupted in clamorous joy when the bar opened at 9 pm. A dormitory-style room with a bathroom down the hall seemed worse than eccentric when we discovered that to get to the ladies’ toilet it was necessary to first walk through the gentlemen’s."
"Local cash registers finally held more paper dollars than silver ones, and the penny drawer was full" nicely sums up the growth of Fairbanks when the military spending hit.
Enough. You’re going to have to buy the book yourself to enjoy the gentle wit and humor. You will not regret it. D.L.