BOOK REVIEW Wildest Alaska
Fradkin, Philip L., WILDEST ALASKA: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay. University of California Press, 2001. 162 pp + Sources + index. Six black-and-white photographs, two maps. $40.00, softbound $16.95.
This is a well-written book but unfortunately contains a great deal of nonsense. Fradkin, author of seven other books, seems intent on portraying Lituya Bay as a place of constant mystery, dread, and tragedy.
Yes, there was tragedy there, to be expected in a tee-shaped bay with glaciers at either end of the cross-bar and fierce tide rips at the entrance, located in a region prone to large earthquakes. A large party of Tlingit hunters had been lost shortly before la Pérouse, the French explorer, entered Lituya in 1786. As his party was getting ready to leave, two small boats and 21 men were lost in the tide rips.
In 1958 a huge landslide triggered by a quake caused a wave that took the mountainside down to bedrock to a height of 1,720 feet (the author says 1,740, only one of the many annoying small factual errors in the book), the highest ever recorded.
Much of the rest of the book is pure padding. The English shipwright, James Shields, builder with Baranov of the first European ship in Alaska, is portrayed as a sad exile, although there is no evidence at all for this, and his only connection with the bay is taking 2,000 sea otters there in 1796.
Another stretch is including Alexei Chirikov, who lost 15 men and his two small boats in Southeastern Alaska in 1741, Captain Cook, who sailed past, and the Harriman Expedition of 1899, which also did not enter the bay.
Around 1900 a rattling good murder case did occur when a miner killed another in a robbery attempt. The twist there was that the young couple who overpowered the killer realized it would be months before they could go outside, so acted as judge and jury and hanged him.
Fradkin finally visited Lituya and terrified himself with bear sightings.
The last part of the book is "Carlos Casteñeda Goes to Lituya Bay." Two widows with connections to the bay are interviewed and the author found the results deeply troubling. He also compares his childhood and life to the problems in the bay.
Fradkin then went to New York to view Tlingit artifacts in a museum rather than going to Yakutat and talking to Tlingits, and found the masks there well, deeply troubling.
He is a skillful writer but a terrible historian and anthropologist. Any writer who ignores and distorts facts leaves himself open to severe criticism from anyone but thrill seekers.