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Good reads

Posted: August 14, 2014 - 12:04am

Chasing Alaska

Bernard spent several years in Alaska, beginning in Sitka in 1999 as a reporter for the local newspaper. There he learned to hunt deer and generally enjoy the outdoor life in Southeast Alaska.

Shortly before he left Massachusetts, his father told him of a shirttail relation, Joe Bernard of French Canada, an Acadian who spent many years in the Arctic, particularly with Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a famous explorer and writer of the early 1900’s.

This was a challenge; what could he discover about Captain Joe, who did write a journal for some years?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. In this book he alternates Joe’s writing with his. This reviewer hates to say it, but Chris’s writing is far superior, although Joe had a more exciting time, if you can think of being alone in the High Arctic sometimes for months as exciting rather than just surviving. There was also Uncle Pete Bernard who spent much time in the Arctic but didn’t keep a diary as far as we know.

The author is an excellent writer, which is very good because he keeps changing his voice. Sometimes it’s current, sometimes a reminiscence. But whatever, his sense of humor and clever words keep us fascinated, not to mention laughing. When he talks about hunting in Oregon, he says it’s common in the countryside, but terms Vegan Portland as regarding a hunter as “someone who waterboards blind orphans for fun”. To keep you laughing, a bit further on he describes coming into a small bay with highly noisy migrating ducks and geese, among them “squawking like Seniors playing Bridge”.

More seriously, when describing the devastating 1964 Alaska earthquake, he writes of the saltwater killed trees, “their dead trunks still rising along sections of the Seward Highway like withered arms reaching from the grave”. This is typical of his power to bring landscapes to life.

The only complaint your reviewer has is the title. Surely someone else came up with this highly forgettable name.

Overall, the purchase of two copies is recommended. You will likely wear out the first one from re-reading or the second will be useful to loan to a friend who forgets to return books.

• Bernard, C. B., Chasing Alaska: a Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now. Lyons Press. Softbound. 280 pages. A few black-and-white photographs.

Glorious Misadventures

The subtitle of “Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America” tells us more about this book. Like the Hudson’s Bay Company of England, the Russian American Company was the occupier of Alaska under the king’s franchise. Rezanov was the RAC’s link to the tsar, and that’s how he is depicted. This book gives us much more detail as to how Nikholai rose from a rather nondescript beginning from a family of minor gentry to a major role in the court of Tsar Alexander I and on to an important player in the RAC governance of Alaska.

However, there are many mistakes in the everyday life of the Company in Alaska; not all of the workers for the company were the convicts, rough characters, and general dissolute men as portrayed, although to be fair, when Rezanov first visited the colony, there were many. Nor is much attention given to the governors, or the fur traders who, unlike the Russians, sold the Natives guns and ammunition, making the area far more dangerous.

But this carping is rather insignificant compared to the magnificent additions to the machinations of the royal court in Russia in this period. It is by far the most complete this reviewer has ever encountered.

Matthews puts up an excellent argument that Rezanov dreamed of annexing for Russia the whole West Coast as far down as California. That has not been the prevailing thought, which had the simple idea of raising wheat for the colony in Alaska. However, this asks for more information. He does deal beautifully with the fact or legend (take your choice) of the romance, or not, of Rezanov and Consuelo, the beautiful daughter of the Spanish commandante in California.

Of course, the author is not the first to deplore a result of the Tlingit destruction of the first Russian settlement in Sitka. The Russians were horrified to encounter the scene and find the heads of the Russian and Aleut defenders. In Tlingit tradition, warriors who behaved cowardly when attacked were killed and the bodies thrown into the sea. Those who fought bravely but futilely were honored by having their heads cut off and placed on sticks so their relatives could take those home and give them a proper cremation. It was the equivalent of a nice burial and white headstone.

The Russian settlement at Yakutat was not of major importance. The people simply tired of the demands of the Russians and their insistence upon complete control. When access to an important hunting area was cut off, the people rose up and destroyed the Russian settlement.

Whatever your feelings, the writing is so good you’ll thoroughly enjoy the read. even if you don’t change your mind as to Rezanov’s importance.

• Matthews, Owen, Glorious Misadventures. Soft bound $16.80 Hard bound $28.00. 385 pages, including index.

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