In Search of the True North: First-Hand Stories of the Booms That Built Alaska
By Molly Rettig, University of Alaska Press / Snowy Owl Books, 280 pages, 2021. $ 21.95
Alaska is not a desert, my neighbor, a longtime Alaskan, once told me. It is a homeland. And to live in a homeland, one might add, is to need its resources in order to survive. This is where Molly Rettig finds her story.
Rettig, a former Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter, arrived in Alaska in 2010 hoping to have an adventure of a year or two and return home with stories to tell for the rest of her life. And like many of us who have wandered north with similar expectations, she never looked back.
Rettig’s understanding of Alaska prior to his arrival was tied to myths of the Last Frontier and a life close to the wild that many Americans still cling to and many Alaskans love to carry on from the comfort of their living room. What she encountered was a state obsessed with the price of a barrel of oil. As the America she left behind buzzed with a post-industrial, high-tech economy led by these much-vaunted creators, the Alaskans were bound by how much oil could be extracted from beneath its surface and the value it had. was awarded by the world. markets. Which meant things could be very good for the Alaskans, or very bad.
Rettig quit journalism within a few years, taking a job at the Cold Climate Research Housing Center, but she hasn’t stopped interviewing people, and she hasn’t stopped writing. She focused her interviews on elderly Alaskans with deep roots in the state and came to recognize how resources dictate history and vice versa, and how these intertwined forces shape human experiences, including her own. The result is her first book, “Finding True North,” which is unlike any Alaskan book I’ve come across before.
Its story begins with its neighbor in Ester, the eccentric community a few miles from Fairbanks steeped in its own history of gold mining. Clutch Lounsbury is a third generation prospector who has spent his life on earth, searching for the metal that humanity cherishes. He inherited his property from his parents, and it comes with his own private mine shaft, which extends from his living room.
For Rettig, Lounsbury presented a conundrum. She liked it right away, but she had taken to Alaska a strong environmental ethic acquired during her previous urbanized life. He was a man who knew and loved the earth they walked on better than she ever could, even as he buried himself in it, forever changing his appearance. Yet this is how he made his way through his long life in Alaska. She was a newcomer. By what right to criticize him? Especially when her life was so fascinating.
It is on this basis that this book takes root. Rettig has divided it into four sections, each detailing the lives of Alaskans well beyond Social Security age, each of whom has spent that life on earth, and each of which would have been unable to do so without resources. For the first three, these resources are linked to the world economy. For the fourth, it is the resources that have enabled it to subsist largely outside this economy.
Rettig digs into the personal stories of his subjects, the stories of their families, the history of Alaska, and even deep time. Along with Lounsbury, she each devotes a section to Wright’s Air Service founder Al Wright, her husband’s parents Mike and Patty Kunz, and Julie Mahler, a Gwich’in elder who finds Arctic Village a bit crowded. Through the stories of these people, she explores the resource booms in Alaska and the collapses that invariably follow. And through her lengthy visits with them, she retraces her own first decade in Alaska, showing how resource-dependent we are all, and being forced to confront the inapplicability of some of her own long-held views when they are. collided with the reality of trying to make a living in Alaska.
Along the way, there are great stories. Lounsbury’s, of course, revolves around gold mining, and his family’s stories date back to the days of the Gold Rush. His grandparents came to Alaska, struggled to find their fortune, and unsuccessfully left to become Iowa farmers. Their son, Lounsbury’s father, returned to his homeland when the Depression deprived him of any immediate future. Now Lounsbury continues the legacy.
Wright founded one of Alaska’s most successful Bush carriers. Rettig relates how, as a young child in Minto in 1931, Wright watched planes descend from the sky and bring the modern world straight to a remote village. She captures the excitement of that childhood moment, but doesn’t give exhaustive details of how Wright built the airline. She is more interested in how planes have changed Alaska. She tells us, however, how in a time when regulations were poorly enforced, Wright simply learned to fly. She also tells a few stories of his misadventures that will leave readers wondering why he didn’t quit and go to work in a grocery store.
Rettig’s stepfather is a prominent archaeologist who made a key discovery about Alaska’s first human inhabitants, a find that changed our understanding of how the Americas were populated. But he couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t been hired to study the route of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Oil made his life possible, and his too. And at their career highs, both saw their livelihoods threatened by sharp price drops.
Finally, she arrives in the arctic home of Julie Mahler, who has lived almost entirely off the land, on resources capable of supporting her in large part but which are threatened by proposed oil development, which could support many other Alaskans.
These stories, which go through time, offer more questions than answers. Fortunately, Rettig is not quick to draw conclusions. Neither does life, if you pay attention to it. And that’s what she does. It’s a book about Alaska as a homeland, with its many dilemmas. And how its author, listening to those who have lived here for a long time, found his own home.