James A. Michener
Class convenes with plate tectonics and, before the final bell is rung, Michener doles out nearly 900 pages of Alaskan history in candy-coated, bite-sized vignettes. With his trademark brand of pedagogy, Michener steers his characters through: the arrival and development of major native groups, European exploration and Russian and American colonization, the gold rush, industrial exploitation by the Lower Forty-eight and the struggle for statehood, and, in a tightly packed final section, geo-politics, macroeconomics, the legal tangle of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the life it has fostered amongst the thereby wealthy natives. The territory offers inherent drama (the treatment of Aleuts by Russia is a story as ugly as any in the history of colonialism), and Michener has unearthed some fascinating episodes (a 1000-mile midwinter bicycle trip along the frozen surface of the Yukon River; the New Deal resettlement of 900 midwestern farmers in Alaska's Matanuska Valley), but the material never becomes convincing fiction--all the seams show. Michener's characters are no more than puppets, and you can see him pulling the strings. As history, this lacks both rigor and substance: Natives are everywhere sentimentalized, and the bias toward Christianity (missionaries and native converts are "saints"; at one point. Christianity is called "worthier" than indigenous beliefs) is disconcerting. Withal, however, Alaska clops forward at a satisfying pace, the breathtaking landscape is a constant presence, and if the prose doesn't sing, it seldom gets in the way. Whatever its flaws, it's Michener, and the 750,000 first printing leaves no doubt about anything but the cast of the mini-series.