by James A. Michener


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In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us through Alaska’s fierce terrain and history, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling present. As his characters struggle for survival, Michener weaves together the exciting high points of Alaska’s story: its brutal origins; the American acquisition; the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the arduous construction of the Alcan Highway, undertaken to defend the territory during World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community fighting to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic saga of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.
Praise for Alaska
“Few will escape the allure of the land and people [Michener] describes. . . . 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. . . . The characters that Michener creates are bigger than life.”Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Always the master of exhaustive historical research, Michener tracks the settling of Alaska [in] vividly detailed scenes and well-developed characters.”Boston Herald
“Michener is still, sentence for sentence, writing’s fastest attention grabber.”The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375761423
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/12/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 1152
Sales rank: 20,570
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.49(d)

About the Author

James A. Michener was one of the world’s most popular writers, the author of more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tales of the South Pacific, the bestselling novels The Source, Hawaii, Alaska, Chesapeake, Centennial, Texas, Caribbean, and Caravans, and the memoir The World Is My Home. Michener served on the advisory council to NASA and the International Broadcast Board, which oversees the Voice of America. Among dozens of awards and honors, he received America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1977, and an award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 1983 for his commitment to art in America. Michener died in 1997 at the age of ninety.

Date of Birth:

February 3, 1907

Date of Death:

October 16, 1997

Place of Death:

Austin, Texas


B.A. in English and history (summa cum laude), Swarthmore College, 1929; A.M., University of Northern Colorado, 1937.

Read an Excerpt

ABOUT A BILLION YEARS AGO, LONG BEFORE THE CONTINENTS had separated to define the ancient oceans, or their own outlines had been determined, a small protuberance jutted out from the northwest corner of what would later become North America. It showed no lofty mountains or stern shorelines, but it was firmly rooted in solid rock and would remain permanently attached to primordial North America.
Its position, fixed though it was in relation to the larger landmass, did not long remain at what seemed the northwest corner, because, as we know from studies which flowered in the middle years of this century, the surface features of the earth rest on massive subterranean plates which move restlessly about, sometimes taking this position or that and often colliding with one another. In these ancient times the future North America wandered and revolved at a lively rate; sometimes the protuberance lay to the east, or to the north or, more dramatically, the far south. During one long spell it served as the temporary North Pole of the entire earth. But later it stood near the equator and then had a tropical climate.
It was, in effect, a fixed attachment to a wildly vagrant landmass, but it bore continuing relation to other would-be continents like Europe or, more significantly, to the Asia with which it would intimately be associated. However, if one had followed the errant behavior of this small jutting of rocky land attached to the larger body, one could never have predicted its present position.
The destiny of this persistent fragment would be to form the rootstock of the future Alaska, but during this early formative period and for long thereafter, it remained only that: the ancestral nucleus to which the later and more important parts of Alaska would be joined.
During one of the endless twists and turns, about half a billion years ago, the nucleus rested temporarily about where Alaska does today, that is, not far from the North Pole, and it would be instructive to visualize it as it then was. The land, in a period of subsidence after eons of violent uprising, lay not far above the surface of the surrounding seas, which had even yet not separated themselves into the oceans we know. No vast mountains broke the low profile, and since trees and ferns had not yet developed, Alaska, which amounted only to a minor promontory, was unwooded. In winter, even at these high latitudes, a phenomenon which would always characterize northern Alaska pertained: it did not receive much snow. The surrounding seas, often frozen, brought in so little precipitation that the great blizzards which swept other parts of the then world did not eventuate, and what little snow did fall was driven here and there by howling winds which swept the earth clear in many parts or left it lightly drifted in others.
Then as now, the winter night was protracted. For six months the sun appeared low in the sky, if it appeared at all, while the blazing heat of summer came in a season of equal length when the sun set only briefly. The range of temperature, under a sky which contained less relative moisture than now, was incredible: from 120° Fahrenheit in summer to the same number of degrees below zero in winter. As a consequence, such plants as tried to grow—and there were none that resembled anything with which we are now familiar—had to accommodate to these wild fluctuations: prehistoric mosses, low shrubs with deep roots, little superstructure and almost no leaves, and ferns which had adapted to the cold clung to the thin earth, their roots often thrusting their way down through crevices in rock.
No animals that we would recognize as such roamed this area, for the great dinosaurs were still far in the future, while the mastodons and mammoths which would at one time dominate these parts would not begin even their preliminary genesis for many millennia. But recognizable life had started, and in the southern half of the little promontory tentative forms moved in from the sea to experiment on land.
In these remote and formless days little Alaska hung in suspense, uncertain as to where its mother continent would wander next, or what its climate would be, or what its destiny. It was a potential, nothing more. It could become a multitude of different things; it could switch its attachment to any of three different continents; and when it enlarged upon its ancestral nucleus it would be able to construct miraculous possibilities.
It would lift up great mountains, the highest in North America. It would accumulate vast glaciers, none superior in the world. It would house, for some generations before the arrival of man, animals of the most majestic quality. And when it finally played host to wandering human beings coming in from Asia or elsewhere, it would provide residence for some of the most exciting people this earth has known: the Athapascans, the Tlingits and much later the Eskimos and Aleuts.
But the immediate task is to understand how this trivial ancestral nucleus could aggregate to itself the many additional segments of rocky land which would ultimately unite to comprise the Alaska we know. Like a spider waiting to grab any passing fly, the nucleus remained passive but did accept any passing terranes—those unified agglomerations of rock considerable in size and adventurous in motion—that wandered within reach. Where did these disparate terranes originate? How could blocks so massive move about? If they did move, what carried them north toward Alaska? And how did they behave when they bumped into the ancestral nucleus and its outriders?
The explanation is a narrative of almost delicate intricacy, so wonderfully do the various terranes move about, but it is also one of cataclysmic violence when the terranes finally collide with something fixed. This part of Alaska’s history is one of the most instructive offered by earth.
The visible features of the earth, including its oceans, rest on some six or eight major identifiable subterranean plates—Asia is one, obviously; Australia another—plus a score of smaller plates, each clearly defined, and upon their slow, almost imperceptible movement depends where and how the continents and the oceans shall sit in relation each to the other.
At what speed might a plate move? The present distance from California to Tokyo is 5,149 miles. If the North American plate were to move relentlessly toward Japan at the infinitesimal rate of one-half inch per year, San Francisco would bump into Tokyo in only six hundred and fifty million years. If the plate movement were a foot a year, the transit could be made in about twenty-seven million years, which is not long in geologic time.
So the movement of a terrane from anywhere in Asia, the Pacific Ocean or North America to the growing shoreline of Alaska presented no insuperable difficulties. Given enough time and enough movement of the respective plates, anything could happen … and did.
In one of the far wastes of the South Pacific Ocean a long-vanished island-studded landmass of some magnitude arose, now given the name Wrangellia, and had it stayed put, it might have produced another assembly of islands like the Tahiti group or the Samoan. Instead, for reasons not known, it fragmented, and its two halves moved with a part of the Pacific Plate in a northerly direction, with the eastern half ending up along the Snake River in Idaho and the western as a part of the Alaskan peninsula. We can make this statement with certainty because scientists have compared the structure of the two segments in minute detail, and one layer after another of the terrane which landed in Idaho matches perfectly the one which wandered to Alaska. The layers of rock were laid down at the same time, in the same sequence and with the same relative thickness and magnetic orientation. The fit is absolute, and is verified by many matching strata.
Through the millennia similar wandering terranes seem to have attached themselves to the Alaskan nucleus. Frequently some enormous slab of rocky earth—sometimes as big as Kentucky—would creep relentlessly north from somewhere and bang into what was already there. There would be a rending of the edges of the two terranes, a sudden uprising of mountains, a revolution in the existing landscape, and Alaska would be enlarged by a significant percentage.
Sometimes two smaller terranes would collide far distant from Alaska; they would merge and for eons would form an island somewhere in the Pacific, and then their plate would imperceptibly move them toward Alaska, and one day they would touch Alaska, so gently that even the birds inhabiting the island would not know that contact had been made, but the onetime island would keep remorselessly encroaching, grinding down opposition, overwhelming the existing shoreline of Alaska or being overwhelmed by it, and no casual observer would be able to detect where or how the join of this new land to the old had been accomplished.
Now, obviously, after eight or ten such terranes had pushed against the ancestral nucleus, none of its original structure still touched the ocean, for it had been surrounded on all exposed sides by the incoming lands. A great peninsula, one of the largest on earth, was in the process of being formed, an immense proboscis reaching out toward Asia, which was also in the process of its formation. About seventy million years ago this nascent peninsula began to assume a shape vaguely like present-day Alaska, but shortly thereafter it acquired a peculiarity with which we today would not be familiar.

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Alaska 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having just returned from a two week trip to Alaska, reading Michener's novel enriched the fantastic experience I had travelling (from Seward north to Barrow) in our 49th state. His description of the school in the North Slope was right on the money, my having spent time in Barrow with a teacher from there. Overall, from page one through 1000+, I have never enjoyed reading a book more that I did Alaska.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book - if only I had read it before I visited Alaska. Even after, it provided extraordinary insights and added immeasurably to my Alaska experience. It allowed me to feel and more fully understand,especially, the ordeal of the Gold Rush. While reading, I kept thinking 'I was there! I saw that!' A beautifully told story, as well, with characters that were alive for me. As in 'Centennial,' I even had feelings for the prehistoric animals!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michener can write 1000+ pages and keep the book riveting the entire way through. His characters all have passions and dreams, they are not just drifting aimlessly through their lives. The natural scenery is also very vivid in Michener's books. Attention is also given to political, social, and ecological issues. Much to his credit, Michener does not use his book as a pulpit to spew out his own opinions. He writes as a journalist, telling things the way they are and letting the readers form their own conclusions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I told a friend of mine that my husband and I were going on a cruise to Alaska and so she suggested that "Alaska" would be a good book to read before making the trip. And she was right! Although I would have loved the book even if I were not traveling there, it really gave a wonderful history of Alaska which was so helpful while touring this part of our country. It is a wonderful book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As we prepare for a 2+ week trip to Alaska I decided it would be good to learn some things in advance. James Mitchner is a good way to do this. I have to admit that sometimes I felt as though I was plodding through parts I still came away with a better understanding of this massive, unusual land that the US was so lucky to purchase and shiuld treasure. I am by no means an expert, but will now have a better undestanding of what people will be trying to explain to me while there. I look forward to seeing all this beauty that Mitchner so well descibed.
davidabrams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I first learned I would be moving to Alaska, courtesy of the Army, I was living in Georgia. The sticky-clothes humidity of Atlanta seemed such a far cry from the minty, glacial image I had of the 49th state. In the months preceding the move, I wanted to learn everything I could about Alaska before I ever set foot on my first snowflake.[Note: ¿Learning everything¿ usually means reading books until my eyeballs dry up and fall out of my head.]Alaska! I sniffed deeply of the humid Atlanta air, coughed on the exhaust fumes from the nearby interstate, then hiked down to the local bookstore. I grabbed John McPhee¿s Coming into the Country, I snatched up Joe McGinniss¿ Going to Extremes, I found Natalie Kusz¿ Road Song. I read all those until my eyeballs went pink-a-plink onto the surface of my desk.But there was one more book¿the granddaddy of narratives, the mother of all tomes, the Mt. McKinley of literature: James Michener¿s Alaska.The simplicity of the title says it all. Of course, the same is true of nearly all his other books which masquerade as geography-history lessons. Iberia. Poland. Space. I¿d never read a Michener book before. Alaska seemed as good a place to start as any.Back in my sweltering apartment, I cranked the air conditioner on high and opened the book to the first of its 1,073 pages. About a billion years ago, long before the continents had separated to define the ancient oceans, or their own outlines had been determined, a small protuberance jutted out from the northwest corner of what would later become North America.Uh-oh.I settled myself in for a long summer¿s nap. This is the trademark, start-with-prehistory method the author typically employs. It¿s tedious, but I suppose he feels it¿s necessary.Michener goes on in a similar geologic vein for many pages, as he describes shifting subterranean plates, tectonic forces and the formation of the first snowballs in Alaska. It is a tough geology lesson; but to his credit, Michener makes it bearable.It isn¿t until 15 pages into Alaska that the first character is introduced. No, it¿s not some bone-knife carrying Asian who wandered over on the Bering Strait land bridge. It¿s a mastodon¿you know, the kind of wooly mammoths that used to help Wilma Flintstone wash dishes. The first humans don¿t walk onto the scene until page 39.I think you see what I¿m getting at. Michener takes his time. He is slow¿glacially slow¿at building the layers of the land¿s history.Reviewing Alaska the book is as daunting a task as reviewing Alaska the state. Oh, the sweep! The panorama! The cast of thousands (including mastodons and whales)!Unlike Alaska the state, however, Alaska the book is dull. Oh, certainly Michener has all his facts in order and the reams of research¿the very towering stacks of dust-collecting manuscripts he must have pored through!¿is indeed impressive. This is history writ large, folks. But as I said, it¿s also history writ lackluster. If I¿m going to invest 1,073 pages and about twice as many minutes in a story about the Union¿s largest and wildest state, then I want to come away shaking and dripping perspiration. The only time I broke a sweat was when the air conditioning went on the fritz and I was stuck reading about frigid blizzards in 90-degree Atlanta heat.Mr. Michener knows his stuff when it comes to the events and people of Alaska. The ancient whale-hunters, the first Russian explorers, the fur traders, the missionaries, the gold prospectors, the salmon fishermen, the wilderness pilots, the World War Two combat troops on the Aleutian islands, the politicians wrangling for statehood in 1959, the environmentalists, the hunting guides, the oil-drilling roughnecks, the dog mushers, the mountain climbers, the urban latte-sipping Anchorage residents¿they¿re all here, crowded into this pulp-and-ink landscape. Does Michener take liberties with history? Probably. Is he comprehensive? Certainly. Does he keep you awake at nights with his epic narrative? Barely.I wor
witchyrichy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was not my favorite Michener. I found it tough to get involved with the various characters. But he did do a good job of showing just how disastrous the settlers were for the native peoples.
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Typical Michener historical fiction novel. The subject, Alaska, makes it one of his finest.
LTW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book begins a billion years ago. Its first characters are the mastadon and the woolly mammoth, followed by such other settlers as the Eskimos, Athapaskans, and Russians. Vignettes of characters as varied as the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, who explored Alaska for Russia's Peter the Great, and Kendra Scott, the young Colorado teacher who taught the Eskimo children during the recent Prudhoe Bay oil boom, illustrate the colorful history of this vast and exploited land.
alexis3700 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing book, spanning wooly mamouths, land bridges, tribes, russians, gold rush, fish, and tidal waves. I knew that Alaska was a vast state, with a rich history, but I had no idea how far it spanned and how much it encompassed. Michener brought this far place right home to me. From the Mammoth's trials, to the fish's fight to return and survive. From the russians need to construct a church to the gold rushers need to dig through permafrost. Simply amazing and eye opening.
Jthierer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good read with several themes that carry throughout the book, even when the characters change. My only complaint is the somewhat simplistic "good" vs. "bad" treatments of some characters/situations.
Cygnus555 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Classic Michener - Huge spans of time and interesting characters. James Michener scares me sometimes to realize what an enormous amount of research and retention this man must be capable of. Sweeping and wonderful book.
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KODIDAK68 More than 1 year ago
Alaska, like all of Michener's books is very good and very readable but people must remember that it is fiction and not all of what he writes really happened. As I was raised in Alaska I do know my history! Enjoy it but do not take it as gospel!
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