REVIEW - ALASKA HISTORY
Madden, Ryan, On-the-Road Histories : Alaska. Interlink Books. Softbound. 314 pages plus index of places. Profusely illustrated. $20.00.
If there is one thing historians love to do, it's read a history in their field written by another historian. There's just nothing more fun than finding a wrong date or poor explanation of an event or even, oh joy! the omission of something important.
Books written as part of an on-going series are especially suspect. Usually such a publishing company wants something quick-and-dirty that the traveling public will buy, so pays peanuts to an author who can meet a fast deadline. Then the result is illustrated with lots of old drawings and photographs in the public domain, so quite some expense is spared, and the book is then placed in as many summer gift shops as possible.
You can imagine the relish with which this reviewer began reading. Yes, there are a few problems, but overall, this is a perfectly adequate history of Alaska for the casual reader.
The biggest flaw in the Russian section is the usual one of the cruel Russians massacring the gentle, innocent Aleuts. Yes, there were atrocities committed by the Russians, but the Aleuts were tough fighters themselves and many Russians, (most the promyshlennikii, or lower-class fur traders), simply disappeared, whether from sunken ships or Aleut retaliation or attacks will never be known. The vicious-Russian-murderers proponents seem to forget the reason the Russians were in the Aleutians - trade. A large factor also was that the Russians never mastered the art of hunting sea otters, the main attraction, and the Aleuts had been doing it for centuries. You really don't want to remain on bad terms with people you need for trade and labor.
However, in other ways, the early and Native histories cover the areas enough to give the reader some worthwhile background. The sale of Alaska and the early U. S. period is slightly spotty. The Harriman Expedition is given more attention than it deserves; the most fascinating bit of that gathering of the most famous natural scientists of the day is the feuding that went on. As these men (sadly, only men) were accustomed to the spotlight, they did not like to share attention; the nightly lectures were not completely the successes Mr. Harriman had envisioned.
The gold rush in the neighboring Klondike spread to Alaska and led to the founding of many towns, with few exceptions such as Nome and Fairbanks, short-lived.
But the emphasis on the complete control of earlier Alaska by the federal government is excellent. Then as now the big outside corporations; the fishing and mining industries, had far more say in Alaska than the residents. Traditionally, from Russian times on, Alaska has been treated as a huge warehouse, where visitors come, take what they want, and leave. The hated fish traps united Alaskans in wanting control of their own destinies.
Statehood, of course, brought its own problems. Those who didn't want it pointed to the poverty of the state; by 1963, in pre-oil pipeline days, the total budget was about $19,000,000; around that of the city of Baltimore that year.
Aviation, World War II, and the rise of the Alaska Native civil activism are adequately covered, although there is more emphasis on the rise of Anchorage than the rest of the territory. However, since the Anchorage area has contained half the population for many years, no matter how the state has grown, perhaps this is a defensible stand.
Modern Alaska; the oil pipeline, settlement of the Native land claims, the founding of the Permanent Fund, and the perennial fight over opening ANWAR are treated fairly. Modern, up-to-the-minute history is very difficult to get right, as divisions exist, tempers flare, and the author is apt to be either canonized or vilified. Here Madden is to be congratulated for his objective stand.
In sum, this reviewer must admit, even if a bit grudgingly, this book is worth reading and buying.