What tougher critics to take on than family and life-long friends? That’s exactly what first-time author Barbara Jacko Atwater has done with “Walter’s Story: Pedro Bay, Alaska — Past, Present and Distant Memories,” a collection of family stories told to Atwater by her great-uncle, Walter Johnson.
Judging to those typically harsh critics, Atwater has published a winner.
“Everyone in Pedro Bay is so excited for you and eager to read your book. I just started reading it and am hooked,” wrote Bianca for the Pedro Bay Village Council.
Johnny Johnson of Iliamna found the book a way to answer inquiries from his children.
“You know my kids have started asking me questions about family and our history. Now I can give them this book,” he wrote to Atwater.
Gail Aspelund of Naknek said someone she knew found the book difficult to put down “except it’s getting dark so he will have to finish it tomorrow and then it’s my turn.”
Summing up the insights found between the book’s covers, Julia Pinnix of the King Salmon Visitor Center said, “What an enlightening look at a time period not too far removed from today, yet so very different in many ways.”
Therein lies the magic of this 192-page book. In simple words, Johnson, who at age 90 lives by himself in Homer, relates the hardships, joys and beauty of life in Alaska’s Iliamna Lake region. Survival depended on successful hunts in the bitter cold of winter and boats brimming with fish during hectic fishing seasons. Shelters were as uncomplicated as the protective boughs of a tree, wall tents yearround and structures built in one location and then disassembled and relocated when a move was called for. There were medical emergencies for which there were no medical facilities. Schools were not a given. Parents were sometimes absent.
Much of Johnson’s stories exist in the details left out, as Atwater recognized and, out of respect of her great-uncle, kept just as he told them.
“He didn’t delve into a whole lot because he didn’t want to. That’s just where he is,’ she said.
An example can be found in what Johnson says about his father, Leondi “Alf” Johnson, from Estonia. While his father was there when Johnson was born in Kaskanak in 1922, and built a house for the family in Lonesome Bay several years later, he departs soon after.
“Dad left in the spring of 1927. He left for Bristol Bay an d never came back. I don’t remember his leaving. I never saw him again until I was a teenager,” says Johnson, leaving the reader to wonder what life for a young boy in that a harsh environment was like without a father.
Ten years later, Johnson’s mother, Anna, of Dena’ina-Russian descent, died and the young man was virtually on his own.
For Atwater, who grew up in Pedro Bay and now lives in Soldotna, hearing her great-uncle’s stories offered some surprises.
“One thing that was never talked about that was a revelation to me was that my dad had killed somebody when he was a boy,” said Atwater.
The incident, as told by Johnson, took place during a winter hunt, when Atwater’s father, George, was about 10 years old. He was carrying a .22 rifle and walking behind another hunter when George’s gun accidentally discharged, fatally wounding the hunter.
Amidst the stark realities of life are descriptions of Johnson’s love of skating over frozen lakes, the enjoyment camping brought him, the appreciated silence that came from being alone in the outdoors and his awareness of a country changing.
“My initial goal was to tell a history of the area,’ said Atwater. “That was the overall goal, not just about Walter, but I’m telling the history of the area through Walter.”
Published by Publication Consultants in Anchorage, the book is illustrated with photos, most of them from Johnson. They offer a glimpse of the country, the people and how they lived.
“They help tell the story,” said Atwater, who hopes sales of the book warrant a reprint so she can incorporate more of the photos that have surfaced.
With the completion of “Walter’s Story,” Atwater is considering her next project.
“Walter told me a whole lot of stories, teaching stories that I didn’t use in the book,” she said. “I’ve been toying with turning them into children’s books.”
For now, she’s enjoying the feedback she’s receiving, like the letter from Johnson’s step-daughter Ethel Adcox of Iliamna.
“I was sent away so much to go to school I felt like I didn’t know Walter and Mom very well … Walter was a wonderful step-dad and I am really enjoying getting to know him better through this book. Thank you for doing this,” said Adcox.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.