The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North American Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
I found this book about the Great Alaskan Quake of 1964 to be both informative and very readable, without being overly dramatic. Young teacher Kris Madsen was above her hilltop schoolhouse collecting water for an evening movie on Friday, March 27, when she felt the quake. From southern California, she wasn’t worried until the trees kept swaying and the water disappeared from the harbor of the tiny village of Chenega. Only the schoolhouse was unaffected by the tidal waves, and the surviving villagers climbed the hill and camped above the schoolhouse. The next day, three scientists including geologist George Plafker were already flying over Alaska to survey the damage. The only working seismograph in Alaska was overwhelmed by the quake and initial estimates were between 8.4 and 8.6 on the Richter scale. Later estimates put the quake at 9.2. You may not have heard much about the quake before, because the earthquake zone was sparsely populated. Most of the deaths were from tidal waves, now called tsunamis, which struck as far away as Oregon and California. The town of Valdez on Prince William Sound was also hit hard, along with parts of Anchorage. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Plafker and others studied the quake area, measuring the uplift and subsidence of land, surprised by the lack of a huge visible fault. The observations and analysis of geologists, especially George Pflafker, helped change scientific opinion to accept the theory of plate tectonics. I enjoyed reading about Plafker’s life, education, and career, and appreciated that the author, a writer and editor with the New York Times, only shared the backstories of Plafker and teacher Kris Madsen. I was also interested to learn what happened to the villages of Valdez and Chenega after they were damaged so badly by the quake.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
This is a beautiful book, printed on heavy, smooth paper. Scattered through the book are photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and descriptions of objects in a collection. The rest of this historical novel set in Alaska and Vancouver, Washington is in the form of letters and journal entries, mostly by Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife Sophie. In 1885, Allen is leading an expedition up the Wolverine River into the interior of Alaska, to map and make contact with the Alaska natives. Sophie is waiting for his return in army housing, expecting their first child and learning to photograph birds and develop the pictures. A tale of adventure, hard to explain encounters in the wilderness for Allen, and a tale of waiting, hoping, and learning for Sophie. A remarkable second novel by the author of The Snow Child.
In December, 1943, five Army aviators left Alaska’s Ladd Field on a test flight in a B-24 Liberator. During the test, the plane spiraled out of control at 25,000 feet, and the crew bailed out. Co-pilot Lt. Leon Crane parachuted to safety away from the fiery crash, but without mittens or gloves. Crane, a city kid from Philadelphia, stayed near the wreck for several days, hoping to find another survivor and to be spotted by a search plane. Back at Ladd Field, many planes were sent in search, but in the wrong area. The crew was declared MIA, presumed dead. Enduring extreme conditions and intense loneliness, Crane covered his hands in the parachute and started walking, after over a week with no food in the Alaskan winter. His only supplies were a knife and some matches. Through phenomenal luck, he found a cabin with some supplies, but had to leave before the spring thaw by hiking over the frozen Charles River, with no idea where he was. Compelling and moving, this is a remarkable true story, very well told. Sure to be popular with readers of Unbroken and Frozen in Time.
The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton
In 1942, Helen Easley is desperate for news of her husband John, a war correspondent. He’s not on an official assignment, but may have left Seattle for Alaska. The Japanese occupy the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, and there is a news blackout. Since his brother’s death in the war, John is obsessed with his work, and left after an argument with Helen. Working in a dress shop in Seattle, she moves in with her elderly father Joe. Helen manages to join the USO but feels guilty about leaving her father behind. She heads for Alaska and any word of John, trying to get over her stage fright and talking with pilots and anyone who’s been to the Aleutians. John, meanwhile, has crash landed on remote Attu with young airman Karl. They scavenge coal and live on seafood, often wet and always cold, and even consider surrendering to the Japanese occupying the island. Part adventure, part wartime love story with a very unusual setting, this is an excellent historical novel.
Bad Blood by Dana Stabenow
Have you met Kate and Mutt? They have now appeared in 20 Alaskan mysteries by Dana Stabenow. Kate Shugak is an Aleut homesteader near the fictional village of Niniltna who occasionally works as a private investigator. Mutt, her sidekick, is half wolf and half Siberian husky. Her partner, Trooper Jim Chopin, asks her to help him investigate the death of a young man, Tyler Mack, from the small traditional village of Kushtaka, just down the river from the more prosperous Kuskulana. The villagers have been bitter rivals for a while, and no one is telling Jim or Kate the whole truth. When another body is found, and someone sabotages a boat, the suspense really begins. Add a young couple with ties to both villages, and Kate really has her hands full. If you want to start at the beginning of the series, read A Cold Day for Murder. For the funniest book in the series, try Breakup. If you read Bad Blood, know that the author is continuing the series, but it will be two years before you find out what happens next. Here’s a recent interview with the author about her background and Kate’s origins.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Jack and Mabel, middle-aged and childless, decide to homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. Mabel feels very isolated, especially since Jack doesn’t want her help on the farm, and bakes pies to sell in town. Jack worries about making it through their second wretchedly cold winter, and they grow apart. One day, as a distraction, they make a snow child, and wrap her in a scarf. By morning, snow child and scarf are gone, but the couple starts glimpsing a little girl in the woods. Skittish and free-spirited, Faina gradually warms to Jack and Mabel and brings them little gifts. Finally befriended by their neighbors, Mabel tells Esther about Faina, but she is skeptical. Jack knows a secret about Faina, but has promised not to tell. Mabel remembers a fairy tale she read about a snow child, and worries about what will happen when spring comes. The wintry landscape is vividly described, along with clearing land, hunting moose, trapping, and meals with their neighbors or Faina. The story takes unexpected twists and turns, and is quite memorable.
Restless in the Grave, by Dana Stabenow
Alaskan P.I. Kate Shugak is happy to step down as chair of the Niniltna Native Association. At loose ends, she agrees to help out Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell investigate the suspicious plane crash that killed entrepreneur Finn Grant. Kate and Mutt (only half wolf) go undercover in Newenham and work at Bill’s Bar and Grill as waitress and bouncer. When they’re shoved in a chest freezer stored in Kate’s apartment, she knows their suspicions are correct. Have you met Kate and Mutt before? Kate, a short, indomitable Aleut, is amazing, but Mutt’s even cooler. You could start with the first book, the award-winning A Cold Day for Murder; the darkly funny Breakup; or jump right in with Restless in the Grave. If you are looking for a clever mystery series with plenty of adventure, great Alaskan settings, and quirky, memorable characters, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries are just the ticket.
They’re also great on audio. For more about Kate and Alaska, visit the author’s entertaining website.