Fast becoming the dean of Alaskan adventure writing, Walker (Coming Back Alive, 2001, etc.) assembles here a crackerjack collection of evocative writings from that state, spread over time and geography.
The selection of well-worn material could easily have come from a commonplace book of passages—in some cases, whole stories or articles—on Alaska. A few are pure adventure and dread, such as Larry Kaniut's account of a man drowning after his legs get stuck in a mudflat. Others showcase Alaskan institutions like the Iditarod, caught best by Gary Paulsen in first-hand experience with that great, numbing race. No collection of this sort would be complete without Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” perhaps the best-known Yukon story of all time, but Walker also finds room for London’s fine profile of gold prospectors. “No Christian martyr ever possessed greater faith than did the pioneers of Alaska,” writes London, but even he is outdone in bleakness by the excerpt from Richard Matthews’s The Yukon: “They arrived to claim their reward and found that it was claimed already; there was no good ground left to stake and thousands to stake it.” The saving grace of his tale is in the humor as prospector after prospector is done in by the crazy circumstances. “Hope dies hard,” notes Matthews, “and in its terminal agonies it is not particular about its sustenance.” Mind you, the descriptions of how to get to the gold fields run by the Klondike News in 1898 should have been enough to send prospectors right back home. The gold-rush section is certainly the strongest here, but all of it is worth reading, from Jan Aspen’s fictional account of hunting to Dave Brown’s dry observations on the rapacious world of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, “the most interesting fiasco I have ever been allowed to participate in.”
A pleasure even for those who simply like the idea of Alaska, let alone pine to go there.