fairly recent times, there were not many books on Alaska other than scientific
reports. They divided
into memoirs by long-time residents, bad poetry, (usually earnest and rhymed like Robert Service), short-time
residents who pretended they were sourdoughs from 1960 and bragged about their hunting prowess, and some
excellent books on natural history. There were also books on the Klondike, World War II, and Native people.
As an Alaskan bookseller since 1977, I have heard interesting and intriguing stories about the authors of
some of these books. Please don't sue me for libel - I am merely repeating gossip.
There was the couple who wrote several books in the 1940s about their life on the North Slope long
before oil was discovered there. They're rather charming stories, although when they split it was clear
Constance was the better writer. I met her ex-husband in 1974 at Jay Hammond's first inauguration as Alaska's
governor. Actually, I didn't meet him; he was pointed out to me as a guy who occasionally went to Scandinavia
and brought back a bride, each younger than the last. Once they learned to speak English, they took off, I was
told. Nice looking man, if rather elderly.
Another memoirist, a teacher (the 1940s to 1970s teachers and missionaries regularly wrote the worst
books about their time in Alaska - they were condescending about the quaint little Native people and of course
didn't bother to learn anything about the culture), I was told by another teacher who noticed the book on my
shop shelves,the author had, together with her husband, lived upstairs in the village teachers' house for a year.
My informant, who had lived downstairs, said the most amazing thing about the couple was the lack of garbage.
They shared a bin downstairs but all winter long there was nothing put in it by their neighbors. I asked what
happened in the spring. "Nothing; we never did know what they did with their trash."
The most detailed story I heard was about Helen Boylan who wrote O Rugged Land of Gold under the pen
name Martha Martin. A friend of hers told me years ago that Helen and her husband were miners. When they
were living on their claim on wild Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska, Helen decided to write a novel. She
concocted a harrowing story of a woman in the Alaska wilderness who had a baby all alone. She sent it to the
popular magazine, Ladies Home Journal, who loved it and paid her a nice sum of money. Being miners, they had
little cash, so Helen paid their bills. Sometime later the magazine announced with much publicity they were
running this thrilling true story in installments.
Boylan was horrified. She had never intended the novel to be taken as authentic. However, she couldn't
refund the money, which she was afraid would be demanded if she told the truth. O Rugged Land of Gold sold a
treat when it was published in the magazine and later as a book. What to do? Ah, she would write the truth.
They did live in the wilderness on their mining claim, so she would write about that. The result, complete with
photographs of their cabin and some of the people in the little settlement of Cobol, was Home in the Bears'
Domain, and didn't sell well at all. Was it a case of "The Truth Shall Make You Poor"?
I recall visiting their empty house years ago, long after the Boylans had left and a man from Juneau
owned it. It was a lovely day and the sun was coming in the window when I walked into her writing room with
the fine view of the beach. There was her desk, some old Atlantic magazines, and some empty typewriter ribbon
spools. A nice feeling.
Greg Littlefield, a Tlingit friend, told me Helen had a grand garden and would come down to the fishing
boats that called, bringing them fresh vegetables. She also planted daffodils, and when we sailed into the harbor
one spring, a meadow of golden blooms greeted us.
One more anecdote here. In New York for a book signing and general publicity, Helen took a nap in her
hotel room one afternoon. She woke up around dinner time and went down to the restaurant. Several people
looked at her and she thought how nice it was to be famous already. It wasn't until she sat down and placed her
napkin on her lap that she realized she hadn't put her skirt back on. Am sure the hardest part was getting up and
going back to her room.
Here's a short little piece. I just obtained a copy of an 1981 report of a committee from the Alaska State
Museum who traveled to England, Russia, Sweden, and Germany to view and report on around 3,000 Alaska
Native artifacts in museums there. A museum photographer, Barry McWayne, accompanied them and wrote a
heartfelt account of "the studio"; lighting equipment for different venues. He writes, "I carried that thing on
planes, trains, taxis and boats; and I have permanent marks in my hands to prove it!" A good friend of mine,
Ellen Hope, was along and told me a charming story. I've forgotten details, but remember the main part. They
were in some museum and Barry was taking pictures of an object placed on the floor. Somehow there wasn't
enough contrast to show off the cultural treasure. Ellen was wearing a black skirt, and Barry had an idea. He
asked her, so Ellen divested herself of the skirt, stood behind a door, Barry put the treasure on the skirt and the
contrast was perfect. He thanked her effusively. She said she was just doing her part to help.
In 1981 a book was published about the adventures of a man I'll call Sam Johnson. He, his son, and two
teenage daughters were in a southern Alaska town, having stocked the boat with food and supplies for their
cabin on the mainland. Although a big storm was forecast, he took the boat out. The storm did arrive and they
were shipwrecked off an island not too far from the town. It might as well have been a thousand miles as few
people live in the area. The family did get safely ashore. Leaving the daughters on the beach with their sleeping
bags, the father and son set off to explore the island. To their great good fortune they found a stout cabin after a
while. Even better, when they got inside, was a radio. It took a while, but they finally roused an operator and
soon rescue was on the way.
However, when I read the book there were some questions. While I could see setting out from home if
they totally ran out of supplies; why would anyone sail from town when a big blow is predicted? And why were
the daughters left on the beach after the two men found the cabin?
There was a rumor that came to Sitka a few months later. Supposedly, the father sailed out on purpose
because he wanted to write up a thrilling true adventure. However, it got out of hand. A few years after that it
was said one of the daughters got married and did not invite her father to participate.
Some people are natural storytellers. Among them was Frank Dufresne. He was Territorial
Commissioner of Fish and Game and the first State Commissioner. He also had been in Alaska for many years,
beginning with a visit to a favorite uncle in Nome, and became a noted naturalist. Dufresne had co-written a
circular and three books on Alaska's animals and fishes in the 1940s. However, in 1965 and 1966 he wrote two
delightful memoirs. The first chronicled his introduction to Alaska's wildlife and the second began with his lonely
uncle making him miss the last boat out of Nome for the winter. His chatty, relaxed telling of good stories
reflects that of many longtime Alaskans who know their wilderness and are fine story-tellers.
Another great storyteller was Wayne Short. His first book, The Cheechakoes, told of coming to the
southern tip of Admiralty Island, an abandoned whaling plant at Murder Cove, just after the end of World War
II. With him were his parents and two brothers. They lived a typical Alaska life style; fishing, hunting, trapping,
gardening, berry-picking, and found it satisfying. The readers found it just as satisfying and demanded another
book. This Raw Land did not have the exuberance of the first, although it starts with Wayne bringing his bride to
the family homestead and a lovely welcome. Too soon his brother disappears in nearby Chatham Strait,
together with his commercial fishing boat. The reality of Alaska hits home. There is tragedy as well as joyous
freedom. On a personal note I met Wayne and his wife once when we took the boat into Baranof Warm Springs
on the other side of the island from Sitka. Very nice people. I gave him our copy of Orth, Dictionary of Alaska
Place Names which did not amuse my husband. I had to order another one for our boat. We heard they moved
to Petersburg, Alaska, then to Mexico.
Wayne had been working on another book for years. Albie & Billy, the Skypilot and Other Stories finally
was published in 1994, 30 years after Cheechakoes. Too bad; it was fine, but was of an Alaska that had passed with
the 1960s. We never knew why Short took so long. Perhaps he didn't want to leave his youth.
Here's a nice story about the early U.S. natural scientist in Alaska and author of the first book in English
by someone who had lived in the territory, Alaska and Its Resources, 1870, revered during his lifetime and later;
William Healey Dall. Several summers ago a very pleasant woman came into the shop. We chatted and
exchanged stories about family stories handed down through the generations. My family muttered about
McCormick somehow underhandedly getting the rights to the reaper when one of our ancestors should have
the credit. Her family had said they had had a famous natural scientist in Alaska, but she had been traveling
around the state and no one had ever heard of him.
And what was his name? "Dall" she said, rhyming it with "pal". Ah. "Was the rest of his name William
Healey?" I asked. Yes. So I assured her this piece of family history was true. Dall Sheep, Dall Island, Dall
Porpoise; the list goes on. We pronounce "Dall" as "Doll". He should have left instructions on the proper
pronunciation of his name.
Steve Hilson, who lived in Sitka for a few years, published a fun marine atlas in 1975, Exploring Alaska and
British Columbia. His bright idea was to take a regular marine atlas and add historical notes, anecdotes from
friends, and general addenda, then have his mother, doing business as Van Winkle Press, publish it. Everyone
loved it. I sold it in my Sitka shop until there were no more copies. Steve had moved on, but I sent word up
north that he should get it back into print as it sold briskly. He replied that he was busy with other projects and
wanted to edit out some errors. Then we heard he had died of cancer, age about 37. For some reason, which as
far as I know, neither his mother in the Midwest nor his widow in Seattle ever explained, the book did not come
into print again.
A forceful woman from Sitka was going to Seattle and decided to make a plea for a new printing. She did
contact Mrs. Hilson but could not convince her. Some years later it was reprinted with additions of color
pictures, and I'm glad to report it's still in print, although at a price considerably higher than the original.
Speaking of out-of-print books, for years and years Capt. Farwell's Hansen's Handbook for Piloting in Puget
Sound and Southeastern Alaska Waters, known fondly as Hansen's Handy Handbook, was easy to find. When I
would go down to Seattle, I would usually pick up several in used bookstores. Then one day they vanished. A
nautical shop had decided it was a rare title and was asking $100.00 for the usually $15-$35.00 book. Of course
word quickly got around and the skippers who used to sell them cheaply suddenly decided they were valuable.
One had told me he had five copies; very handy for breaking in steersmen. Just leave them in the pilothouse
with a copy opened at the right page and then check on the helmsman from time to time.
The story came to Alaska that a woman in Seattle had purchased the rights to the book, but had the plates
melted down. No idea of the truth, but it seems a foolish thing to do.
Dr. Erna Gunther was a well-respected anthropologist who worked in Seattle; she taught at the
University of Washington for 60 years as well as directing the Washington State Museum for 31 years. She came
to Sitka in the mid-1960s to modernize the Sheldon Jackson Museum; the oldest museum extant in Alaska and
showing it. I remember the faded hand-lettered captions on the artifacts and general air of 1900.
Erna was a small, round woman, very pleasant and returned greetings on the street very nicely, if a bit
vaguely. She had a strong German accent and it was years before I learned she was born in New York of
German parents. In 1956 the American Ethnological Society published, via the University of Washington Press,
the excellent translation she had done of a work on the Tlingits by two brothers, Aurel and Arthur Krause. Both
geographers, they had been sent in 1880 by the Bremen Geographical Society, to study the Tlingits. The resulting
work, evocatively titled Die Tlinkit-Indianer was published in Germany in 1885, and is the best one-volume work
on the Tlingit Indians, the most northerly of the Northwest Coast tribes. Sadly, today it is rather hard to find. It
was reprinted twice, but has gone back out of print. Am happy to report it came back into print in 2013.
A Fairbanks artist spent a fair amount of time in one of the villages on the Noatak River area in the 1950s
and early '60s. She wrote and illustrated several books on the people and scenery. Alice (I'll call her Alice,
although that was not her name) was a person I dreaded to see in my shop. She was one of the cheapest
individuals I have ever known. A book had a price of $4.50 written long ago on the paste-down; Alice insisted
that must be the price although I told her several times the price was in the upper right-hand corner; in this case
$20.00. She said I must sell it for $4.50 because that was the price. As the shop was very busy I finally agreed
rather than have her in my face again. She was also very good at self promotion; overall, most unlikable.
However, years later I met a young man who had taught at the village and somehow gotten to know Alice. She
was quite elderly then and in poor health, but insistent that she wanted to visit the village again. She was sure all
the inhabitants worshipped her and would love to see her.
He had checked around the village and found, among those who remembered her, no great devotion.
He made various excuses and was relieved when her health deteriorated so visiting was no longer possible. I
must admit I was then sorry for her. How sad to have a legacy that was lead instead of gold. On the other hand,
perhaps it was just as well that she never knew that, but died believing she was beloved.
A quick note - if you want to really irritate Yukoners, mention casually that Robert Service and Jack
London wrote great books about their time in Alaska. Service was from Scotland originally and wound up in the
Yukon as a bank teller. London was from California and also spent time in the Yukon. Neither spent time in
Alaska once they made their way into the Yukon, and the stories of both were set there.
Pierre Berton's book, published in Canada in 1958 as Klondike - the last great gold rush, 1896-1899 and as
Klondike Fever in the U.S. remains simply the best single book written about the Klondike gold rush. Not only is
Berton a good historian and skillful writer, but he was born in Whitehorse and raised in Dawson City,
surrounded by relics of the great rush. Over the years a few Yukoners have talked about his family.
One story was that Pierre's father was one of those people who didn't do anything. A perfectly nice man,
well-educated and friendly; not a gambler or drunkard; he just didn't work. His wife, Laura Beatrice, was a
teacher and supported the family, which didn't seem to bother her at all. Another account said in the early 1950s
Laura was complaining about the facts and value of books on the Klondike. Pierre supposedly said to her,"
Mama, you were there. Why don't you write your own book about it?" So she did. I Married the Klondike is a
Another indomitable woman in the Klondike was Martha Black. She wrote a book that was published
under at least two titles; the last reprint is eponymous. Do read it. I was told many years ago by an older Yukon
woman that when she was very young she was at a formal gathering and happened to be seated next to Mrs.
Black. The young woman had to make a talk to the group and was terrified. She said Martha just patted her arm
and told her she would do very well. Apparently all went well, but she would never forget that kindness.
Wally and Marie Herbert were married and wrote books, but Wally's were more on the history of Arctic
exploration while Marie wrote about the Native people and their lives. Years ago I was told by a visitor to the
shop that Wally was miffed because Marie's books sold better than his. As I never met either of them, I cannot
say if this was true and if so, did it make any difference in their marriage?
The U.S. government was rather lax in surveying its new territory. Although Alaska was purchased from
Russia in 1867, nothing much was done about mapping until the Klondike gold rush of 1898. People around the
Copper River have a rather low opinion of Lieutenant Abercrombie and quite a high one of Lieutenant Allen.
Abercrombie is entertaining in a way. His men and he were up on the glacier out of Valdez and having a rough
time. So he left his men and took a ship down to Washington to purchase horses from the Indians. He returned
some time later. He also speaks of the terrible conditions in the little Valdez hospital and his alleviating them, but
Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, in their excellent history, Valdez Gold Rush Trails, 1898-1899 not only dispute this claim
but have a photograph showing a tidy and well-run hospital before Abercrombie arrived.
Allen, on the other hand, while not as enjoyable, was a person with a straightforward desire to complete
the survey he was charged with in 1885. However, there is one very troubling account in his report. It is in May,
a time of great hunger in the Interior. Winter stores are gone and berries and fish not available yet. He came
across a small Athabaskan settlement comprised of women and children. The men were off hunting deer. He
checked their stores and found only a few berries, fish, and roots.Their hunger upset him so much his party
camped several miles away. To be fair to Allen, someone suggested he was completely concentrating on his
duty - to survey was his goal. Perhaps, but how could he not see hungry people? Yes, his men were also
hungry; they had eaten 30 half-rotten salmon they found in an old cache two days before after several weeks of
finding only a few rabbits and one bear, but to rifle through starving people's caches is beyond thought. And
surely they could have shared something like flour.
Around forty years ago a publisher had a wonderful idea. How about finding a qualified biologist and
have him spend a summer in remote Brown Bear habitat in Alaska, then write about it? They found a good man
and placed him in a cabin on Catherine Island in Southeast Alaska. It may have seemed remote in Chicago or
even Anchorage, but it is a very popular place for local recreational fishing in the summer. Of course word
spread quickly about the biologist and his mission. Some of Sitka's practical jokers saw this pleasant, unassuming
man who was obviously lonesome and happy to have people to chat with as a wonderful opportunity to hone
their skills. So he was there to photograph and experience bears? He did know the island has nothing but
Brown Bears; no Blacks. Yes, he did. Blacks are fairly docile, but Brownies are really unpredictable.
We now pause for various stories told the biologist, some of them even true, about the Brown Bear and
his whims. Sitkans No. 1 returned home and told their friends. They responded in style. One joker looked
serious and told the vulnerable biologist there wasn't a family in Sitka that hadn't lost someone to a bear. The
poor man started hearing and seeing bears at his windows and door and finally gave up and returned home.
After his book was published, he came to Sitka to give a slide show and discuss his findings. There was an
excellent attendance and when the slides began with a Black Bear cub up a tree the audience was hushed, waiting
for more. The rest of his talk was an anti-climax; he apologized for the slides, which the publisher had
assembled, than talked rather pitifully about his time on the island. A nice man in over his head, was the
consensus. Sitka had to find something else for amusement.
A woman in Juneau wrote a book about the artist Sydney Laurence. It wasn't a terribly well-written
book, but the author, a short, plump middle-aged woman, was quite pleasant when I met her. I was surprised to
hear from friends in Juneau she was a remittance woman. Sitka had a remittance man; a matter of local pride. If
you're not familiar with the remittance person idea, it seems to have been a British term coined in the late
nineteenth century. A family member, usually male, was disgracing the family with his behavior, or threatened
to. So he would be sent to a remote part of the world and as long as he stayed there, would receive a remittance
of money every month if he didn't besmirch the family name in public.
The Sitka man ran an apartment building and was famous for once putting his bed in the main street and
threatening to live there because he was angry with the city over something. That was solved. It was also said
that children found him disturbing.
What the woman biographer had done or threatened to do was unknown, at least in Sitka.
Bob Henning, whom I met just once while having dinner with a couple of his old friends, was the highly
successful publisher of some icons of Alaska. When we moved to Alaska in 1963, we were told by our neighbors
and later good friends, George and Margaret Wagnon, to subscribe to the Alaska Sportsman because all Alaskans
did. The Wagnons had lived in Alaska for nearly ten years, beginning at Dillingham, over on Bristol Bay. They
showed us slides of the cabin they built on the Wood River that leads to the Tikchik Lakes.
Fresh from the suburbs of Baltimore, where summer places were like the small houses we rented for a
week on the Delaware shore and a cook-out in the backyard was outdoor life, we were dazzled. Their slides
showed them flying out in their plane to the A-frame in the Tikchiks, initially carrying lumber George had
cleverly strapped to the floats, over totally wild country. Then they were building the A-frame, and finally some
pictures of an odd line running around some trees just outside the cabin. That was explained as fishing line; a
bear had entered the empty cabin over the winter and somehow become entangled in a broken reel left there. It
had departed the cabin and went round and round the trees until the line was used up.
Jean Potter wrote at least three books on Alaska aviation during the 1940s. It was said the Bush pilots told
her outrageous stories which she retold so well the books were very popular. So much for exaggerated tales.
I could go on, but I think that's enough for now. Want to let me know the inside story on an Alaskan
author? Please do.