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The Great Alone by Janet Dailey (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 768 pp.)

August 03, 1986|Suzan Nightingale | Nightingale is a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. and

The wonder is not that nationally known writers finally are discovering the rich potential of Alaska-based fiction, but that they have resisted it for so long. For sheer variety, Alaska offers an unlimited playground of delights: colorful characters, play-as-you-go rules, disparate cultures, exotic locales, common people turned millionaires--well, you get the idea.

Janet Dailey has tapped just about all of it in an occasionally uneven but still satisfying saga that runs from the misted hills of Siberia in 1742 to post-statehood Anchorage.

Dailey is something of a publishing phenomenon, having written 80 romance novels since her first book was published in 1975. Her books have sold 100 million copies, making her one of the world's best-selling contemporary writers.

"The Great Alone" is a definitive move to shed the romance cloak, although there are enough beautiful heroines and handsome heroes falling in love (or at least lust) at first sight to keep longtime fans satisfied.

The yarn starts with a rough Russian adventurer drawn to the unexplored land to the east in search of furs. It was this Russian obsession with the seemingly unlimited treasure of otter furs that prompted the trade armada and cost the Aleut Indians their way of life.

Dailey's tale spins on through seven generations born of the ill-fated Aleuts, the Russians who stayed on and colonized Sitka and Kodiak, the Americans who followed the purchase of "Seward's Folly" and the Europeans who came looking for gold in a new land.

In the best romance tradition, "The Great Alone" is peopled with strong, beautiful and clever women --you had to be at least one of the three to survive--holding their own in a world propelled by flawed, if sometimes well-meaning, men. Yet, Dailey has gone far beyond the spunky heroine formula to incorporate considerable research into Alaska's customs and past. Indeed, with an opening paragraph that describes how the boat carrying the Russian adventurers was built--"its green timbered planks were lashed--or 'sewn'--together with leather thongs, giving rise to its name ishitik from the Russian verb ishi-it which means 'to sew' "--the reader fears death by bludgeoning research. But soon the story is progressing nicely with liberal glimpses of Alaska's history (a black hole to most Americans) leavened with enough literacy license to keep things moving.

History buffs, especially, will welcome the inclusion of the Aleutian campaign during World War II. In this little-known theater of action, Japanese forces invaded--and briefly held--American soil. Yet, as a concluding segment, this chapter leaves a curious vacuum by alloting only one sentence to the wartime involuntary relocation of the islands' Aleuts and civilians, compared by some to the internment of Japanese-Americans. That omission seems a missed opportunity to bring to full circle Dailey's opening theme of the white man's no-holds-barred advance upon Alaska.

Still, the idea here is not definitive Alaskan history but entertainment; and on that level, "The Great Alone" usually keeps the pages turning: just the thing for a long winter night's read, Alaska's version of the summer beach book.

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