James Michener Makes His Mark On Madison Isthmus With “Alaska”

The year-long pandemic and the need to be apart from others who do not reside in our home has had one positive outcome. While always an avid reader I find myself over the past many months venturing into the covers of books by authors I had not tried before. Between Amazon, the online use of Libby via the library, and now a Kindle there is no shortage of ways to access anything I wish to read. But what about those books that, for whatever reason, I have not considered holding in my hands?

A Facebook reader of this site, who left Wisconsin in the past four years to live in Cologne, Germany was commenting back and forth in messenger with me about a variety of topics when we landed on books. When I asked her favorite authors among the names she offered was James Michener.

“I have never read any of his work”

“What! You love books and well-written sentences and you haven’t read Michener?”

“Where would you have me start” (Since there are roughly 40 books in his listing)

She took about four seconds to type out her response.


This week I started the tome which pushes to nearly 900 pages. Two things, however, struck me at once. First, his almost sly way of lulling a reader into the pages. Not with a somewhat modern event where Alaska becomes a state or mineral wealth is located deep underground. No, we trek far back in time to the earth’s plates moving and grinding and uplifting over and around the nucleus rock formation of that far northern land. In human terms, we would be talking about something that doesn’t even have eyelids, yet. The geologic birth of Alaska was presented with words that makes one read portions twice as it is so artfully done.

The second aspect of the book that took me by surprise is that Michener writes single sentences that are, at times, 30 plus words. Modern writers could not, and current publishers would never allow based on mass-market sales, for such expansive writing to occur. When my reader in Europe said the sentences would be loved, she was correct. They are gems.

I will add only one other note about the opening chapters that intrigued me regarding his style of writing. In one the death of a mammoth is viewed from the eyes of a matriarch in the animal herd. In the next chapter, we meet in Siberia a starving group of people 29,000 years ago who migrate across the land amass to what will be Alaska. It is there we then see, from the human perspective, the same sequence of events that land them food and fur that will last for most of the year.

My print version of the book arrives in the mail this week, as Libby will want their digital copy back long before I am finished. It is the type of book that–at least from this reader’s perspective–is not only an epic tale of a place and various peoples who made their lives on the land, but also the ability of an author to so adroitly craft an engaging story.

That is the type of book that warms my heart. I am so pleased to have had a conversation from abroad that alerted me to an author to help make this time of pandemic less trying.