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Texas Was Too Small : ALASKA by James A. Michener (Random House: $22.50; 868 pp.; 0-394-55154-0)

July 03, 1988|Tom Bodett | Bodett is the author of two books of essays: "As Far as You Can Go Without a Passport" and "Small Comforts." He makes his home in Homer, Alaska

And " . . . he could hear the laughter, the chuckling of the wind coming over a hill, the exhilaration of a whale breaching after a long submarine chase, the gaiety of a young fox chasing birds aimlessly, the wonderful, hallowed sound of a universe that does not care whether a man finds refuge or not so long as he enjoys the irreverent pleasure of the search."

In this lucid way does Michener, through one of his earliest characters, define the scope and reach of "Alaska," his newest and most ambitious study. I say "study" rather than novel because in patented Michener style, "Alaska" reads more like a history of the United States' largest member than it does an epic novel. There's more subject than predicate, if you will.

But that's not to say that the subject is not a fascinating one. For nearly 900 pages, a size befitting of its topic, "Alaska" takes the reader on a journey through one of the bleakest, richest, most foreboding and highly inviting territories in our Republic, if not the world.

In true Michener form, "Alaska" covers a time span of about a billion years. Using an effective blend of fact and fiction, Michener brings the subject from its days as a fledgling body of land all the way forward to existing legal and moral ramifications of Alaska's land distribution.

The social implications of continental drift are a pet subject of the author's, but even the most cynical reader must admit to the credibility of the perception that our cultures are a product of their terrains. With Alaska being among the newest and most volatile of the planet's topographies, it is even more credible that this novel should feature the terrain as a major player.

The first flesh-and-blood players to appear in "Alaska" come in the form of mastodons and woolly mammoths that migrated freely from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge to live on Alaska's lush Arctic plains. These impressive beasts are followed by tenacious humans from Siberia with whom Michener quickly establishes a native population in the new land.

Michener reveals a great respect and compassion for the Alaska Native very early in this novel and continues to wave their flag at every opportunity throughout. From the early Russian traders' abuse of the natives and near genocide of some segments of their population, to the present-day social and judicial inequities suffered by them; Alaska Native issues almost become the raison d'etre of "Alaska."

The inept colonization of Alaska by Czarist Russia is well provided for here. Michener chronicles the Russian occupation and the scant attention paid the new territory and its administrators by the impossibly far-off central government in St. Petersburg.

The Russian excesses of native persecution and the near extinction of the fur seal is balanced by the author with his relative successes of establishing "civilized" footholds in this raw land at Kodiak, Sitka, and other lesser outposts.

American involvement in the unfolding story of the Great Land begins with the Boston whalers in the far north during the Russian years. When the territory is handed over to the U.S. government just after the Civil War, the novel begins anew.

Michener makes much of the fact that Alaska failed for decades to attain even territorial status under its new owners and clearly defines the chaotic state of affairs of such a vast property and diverse people living virtually under no law or government.

The characters that Michener creates are bigger than life and one-dimensional at the same time. Michener's human studies are void of passion but full of intent and industry. They tend toward spawning ingeniously intertwined clans without actually making love; children grow up without being reared, and they die nobly without pain or suffering.

The strongest lineage introduced in this novel begins with his young hero, Tom Venn, who appears as a boy during the Klondike Gold Rush and goes on to control a huge Seattle merchandising and shipping concern dedicated to the economic control of Alaska.

Young Venn guides us through the booming gold years, the Silver Years of the salmon industry, and his offspring and theirs in turn participate in the Aleutian campaign during World War II, the settlement of Alaska's Rail Belt, and the more recent boom years of the oil industry.

Michener has done a fine job of chronicling the long and confusing history of a perpetually ignored part of America. The author's intent, if there was any, is to point out the myriad abuses that Alaska has suffered at the hands of the federal government, unscrupulous confidence men, and self-serving corporate giants from Seattle.

Michener's attention in the latter part of the book to ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), which is an ongoing and unresolved predicament faced by all Alaska Natives, is what gives "Alaska" its real purpose.

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