BOOK REVIEWS, ALASKANA
Pedersen, Elsa, KACHEMAK BAY YEARS: An Alaska Homesteaderís Memoir. Illustrated by Rebecca Poulson, edited by Jackie Pels, Kenai. Hardscratch Press. softbound, $18.50
The illustration on the cover could be a metaphor for the authorís life at Bear Cove in Kachemak Bay. A dense, primeval forest broods in the foreground with the ocean or perhaps a lake shining in the distance with a glimpse of sky beyond.
Elsa came to Bear Cove as a young woman, eager to share the work and satisfaction of homesteading with her beloved husband Ted. Clearing the heavy forest with handsaws and building a cabin with hand tools was the hardest sort of work. The plague of mosquitoes and white socks seemed never ending during the summers, the deep snows of winters equally eternal.
Gradually the lighthearted mood evaporated. The few neighbors moved away and Ted took tugboating jobs where he was gone months at a time. There were no children, so Elsa took to fighting the loneliness by writing books for older children. They were quite successful because they were rooted in the real Alaska of homesteaders and commercial fishers living a subsistence lifestyle.
As the book continues, a modern woman wonders why on earth Elsa put up with an increasingly sagging, loveless marriage. To be fair, she must be put into the context of her generation. A girl was expected to find a husband, marry, and have children. Even if there were no children, she was supposed to stay with her man or face the calumny of society.
It does seem odd that Alaskaís easy marriage customs of shedding unlikable spouses didnít rub off on her long before she decided to decamp, but she stuck it out through Tedís unsuccessful fishing ventures and restless decisions to move the cabin or build a new one. She lasted through the 1964 earthquake that devastated Seldovia, where she was working at the time, and the bitter aftermath when the town fought over the rebuilding plan. Too late, she discovered she was on the wrong side when the promised lovely new town completely changed the character of the sweet old place she loved. The final blow came when she and Ted went to Hawaii one winter.
Their landlord and wife invited them to dinner Christmas Eve and asked all sorts of questions about homesteading. When they returned to their cottage, Ted was angry and said to her, "Whatever you did on the homestead doesnít amount to one damned thing."
As Elsa reports, "His words stunned me into despair. In one cruel sentence he wiped out any pride and attachment I had for our life at Bear Cove."
Their lives were led entirely separately, even when they were in the same house. Her new books didnít sell well, the earthquake had damaged the land around the cabin, and by 1971 Elsa was ready for a change in her life.
She left Ted and moved into town. Exactly why she wed his brother Walt isnít dwelled upon, but the marriage seems to have been a happy one. Walt died in 1998, Ted in 1990, and Elsa died before her book was published, although she knew that was happening and was very pleased. Itís clear that she was bitter that her honest account of the trials of homesteading was not popular with publishers, who overlooked her skillful writing and demanded something humorous like The Egg and I. She was too hurt, too old, and too angry to tell only the amusing parts.
This clear-eyed look at the costs, physical and mental, of homesteading as the years roll on, deserves to sell well. Itís a lesson for the idealistic Walden dreamer as well as comfort for those who tried and failed. Highly recommended as well for the woodcuts that fit the text so well.