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12 Books to Read Before Living in Alaska

by ATJ Posted in I ♥ Alaska |
Image used under Flickr Creative Commons license from Ryan Hyde.

Image used under Flickr Creative Commons license from Ryan Hyde.

From classic narratives of roughing it in the bush to contemporary takes on quirky Alaskan characters, Alaska has inspired writers to reach for superlatives from day one. Here are some of our must-reads authored by Alaskan natives, awestruck visitors, and those who’ve been touched and inspired by the state’s beauty and unique way of life. With these favorites on your shelf, a new adventure in Alaska seems all- too-real (and very tempting!).

1. One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey

This book authored by Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke has singlehandedly launched many a wilderness odyssey since its publication in 1973. Richard Proenneke deserted a life of 50-hour workweeks and embarked upon an idyllic survivalist’s dream instead: living in the Alaskan woods of Lake Clark National Park. Subsisting entirely off the land in a hand-hewn cabin, Proenneke’s life of pristine solitude lasted for 30 years.

Ask any newly arrived outdoorsman in Alaska and chances are he’s got a dog-eared copy lying around somewhere.

2. If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name‬: News from Small-Town Alaska‬

Ever wondered what it’s really like to live in one of Alaska’s remote, yet close-knit communities? In this engaging and entertaining book by Haines, AK resident Heather Lende, the author uses her unique perspective as the chronicler of obituaries and social happenings at her local paper to bring the offbeat locals of Haines to life. Lende paints a portrait of her small-town existence while illuminating both the beauty and occasional sadness of life there—a true insider’s glimpse and a good read before starting your summer job in Alaska.

3. The Snow Child

There’s something about Alaska’s ethereal, crystalline winter landscapes that lends itself to magic. In this acclaimed novel by Alaskan native Eowyn Ivey, a couple roughing it in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1920’s creates a child from snow. What happens next astonishes everyone. Unfolding a tale of surprise, lush beauty, and just a touch of the otherworldly, this one will really whet your appetite for the imaginative possibilities of the landscape.

4. Fifty Miles From Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People

No knowledge of Alaskan peoples is complete without considering those who came before. In the case of author William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, those who came before are his Inupiaq ancestors, who have lived a partially nomadic existence for thousands of years in one of the harshest climates on earth. Throughout this fascinating account, Hensley illuminates his childhood 29 miles north of the Arctic Circle and his later adult crusade to win back the land that sustains the Inupiaq way of life.

5. Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska

In this honest and descriptively written memoir, Miranda Weiss records her trials and tribulations after a big move to Homer, AK with her boyfriend. At first unprepared for a land of extremes after growing up on the suburban East Coast, Weiss learns about the seasons that drive Alaskan lives, cultivates new friendships, and masters her own brand of self-sufficiency as she comes to know—and love—her new home.

6. Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man

In this humorous take on the newbie-moves-to-Alaska tale, Douglas J. Fine describes his first winter going it alone in a rural cabin in hilarious detail. From frozen escapades to power tool scares, this is the ultimate antidote to all the literature that romanticizes a big, mountain man move. Was it worth the move north? Yes. Was it really, really hard? Yes again.

7. Coming Into the Country

Dazzling wordsmith John McPhee turns his pen to the characters of Alaska and its potential future in this non-fiction book describing three essential aspects of the state: the wilderness, its growing urban population, and bush living. Throughout, McPhee reveals the depth and diversity of Alaska through the eyes of its varied residents, while also identifying the economic forces at play. If you need a snapshot of the state to get oriented, read this one first.

8. Ordinary Wolves

Author Seth Kantner was born in an igloo, so his novel about a boy torn between two worlds—that of the frozen north and its Inupiaq people and the encroaching effects of modernity—will really strike a chord with anyone that’s felt adrift between cultures and ways of living. A meditation on the changing far, far west, this fantastic narrative helps to illuminate the paradox of modern Alaska.

9. Songs of a Sourdough

You’ve gotta have some good campfire reads for a stay in Alaska! Robert Service (a.k.a the “Bard of the Yukon”) left behind a passel of entertaining tales-in-verse that make the perfect recitation. We dare you to read one of his classic poems about gold rush life aloud and not get just a few chills up your spine (the fun kind). “Cremation of Sam McGee,” anyone?

10. Call of the Wild

While you’re on your classic Yukon writers kick, anything by Jack London will do nicely. His fiction sets the stage for the Klondike Gold Rush and the early waves of settlers who rushed Alaska’s shores and forests to homestead and make their fortunes. Plus, this story features sled dogs teams, just one of the many things that make this state stand out from any other.

11. Travels in Alaska

For sheer beauty and wonder at Alaska’s monumental scenery, look no further than John Muir, the naturalist poet and activist who did so much to bring reports of the mythical American west to those who longed to know it. Soon after the Alaska territories changed hands from Russia to the United States, he explored the wilderness at length, leaving behind his characteristically vivid sketches of the natural world. Wanderlust: engaged.

12. Moments Rightly Placed: An Aleutian Memoir

The rugged and isolated Aleutian Islands form the backdrop of this extraordinary account from Ray Hudson, who spent 28 years living on the tip of the thousand-mile island chain among the Aleut people. Originally embarking on his adventure to teach, Hudson found in his decades of residence that the Aleuts had much to teach him, too. This memoir is yet another thoughtful account of cultures in transition, and shares the voices of a truly distinctive segment of the Alaskan population.

Whether you share an interest in native Alaskan voices, gosh-wow scenery descriptions, or need some real talk about what life in Alaska entails, this list has got you covered. For a state with so few people, Alaska sure has nurtured a lot of creativity over the years. What can we say? It tends to have that effect on people. After enjoying these 12 books, find an amazing summer job in Alaska and pack your bags!

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