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'Pen' proves mighty

Book preserves history, nets award for local author

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008


  "The Alaska Pen: An Illustrated History of Unga" is available for purchase at River City Books in Soldotna, the Kenai Convention and Visitors Center, and on For more information about the book, the authors, and the community of Unga, visit

"The Alaska Pen: An Illustrated History of Unga" is available for purchase at River City Books in Soldotna, the Kenai Convention and Visitors Center, and on For more information about the book, the authors, and the community of Unga, visit

Alaska communities are as widely varied as the landscape of this, the largest state in the nation. A community of the same size in the Interior will have a very different set of challenges than those of a community in Southcentral, or in Southeast.

Over time, some of our villages and towns have disappeared; tides, earthquakes, changing industrial patterns a small community may not be able to stand against such forces. For Peggy Arness and her collaborators, Thor Lauritzen and Edward Melseth, it became apparent at a reunion of one-time residents of Unga that there was a need to preserve the history of their community.

"There were the 50 people there, and it turned out to be really fun to see them. Thor had asked everybody to write a little bit of a memory about their time in Unga," Arness said of the reunion in Westport, Wash., in 1993.

The families of Unga, a village of about 250 on the Aleutian chain, had no physical place to which they could return to find their history. Arness, Lauritzen and Melseth decided to create a place for the families on the page.

"We decided in our adult years that the story of our little village needed to be preserved. We have done that through stories from the newspaper that the school had, which was titled 'The Alaska Pen.' The students in the high school, which was very small in enrollment, published this newspaper every month, of every year from 1934 up until about 1955," Arness said.

"The Alaska Pen: An Illustrated History of Unga" is a compilation of stories and articles from Unga Territorial School newspaper, "The Alaska Pen." The authors researched each item, gathered photographs, and included history from the village. Even the printing style was based on the school newspaper.

Arness said that the book was designed to be 81/2 by 11 inches, because that was the size of "The Alaska Pen."

"Really there wasn't any newspaper anywhere around there. Our village was located close to Sand Point. I don't think there was any newspaper even in Unalaska, there probably was in Kodiak, but not in Unalaska at the time. So, even the other communities enjoyed our paper," Arness said.

Arness, Lauritzen and Melseth each attended the Unga Territorial School at different times. Their school careers spanned from the 1930s through the 1960s. The structure of the book reflects the progression of the community during this time period.

"We divided the book up into three sections: the first section is the 30s, and the middle section is the war years, because we were out there during World War II, and then the end of Unga. Unga literally died after the war. It was cod fishing and gold mining in the early years, and they were not there after the war. So families moved away, because they had to make a living," Arness said.

Many of these families intended to work elsewhere, and eventually return to their homes in Unga, but this was not to be. With the town abandoned, vandalism and dilapidation took the town. Despite this sad ending to a community, the authors wanted the book to be positive. They wanted to be certain that this unique community life was not forgotten.

"When the book first came out, the people who used to live in Unga would call and purchase one book. Then they'd call and say, 'I need six more for all my kids.' Of course there's been generations of people since then, and they want people to have that, because it's the history of their lives, really," Arness said.

The book's first printing, out in Novmeber 2006, is almost sold out. According to Arness, "Alaska Pen: An Illustrated History of Unga" has seen more recent success, as well.

"It's turned out really well and it's been received very well. Just recently I got the information that our book had been selected, basically, for the Book of the Year for the Alaska Library Association. So, I received that award last week. I went up to Fairbanks and got it," Arness said.

The Alaska Library Association, at its annual meeting in Fairbanks, presented the Best Alaskana of the Year Award to Arness, who accepted on behalf of Lauritzen, Melseth and herself.

"For me it's special to be recognized by librarians. They're aware of all books that are coming out, and it's not just a particular category or anything. And they seemed to appreciate our efforts to preserve stories of Alaskans as it was in years past. It wasn't anything fictional; it was the real thing. And most everything in the books is seen through the eyes of children the stories and articles," Arness said.

The recognition carries a more personal meaning for Arness, as well.

"It was really special to me because my mother was a teacher out at Unga when I was growing up. She started the library in Seldovia, where we lived before we went to Unga, and then she started the library and kept it going all those years out in Unga. Then when we moved to Kenai, mother was still teaching and she started the community library here," she said.

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