Outsider tells Alaska's tale with rare skill

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2003

Alaska is such an amazing place, filled with so many interesting tales that it is a shame that the general histories written about it have fallen short. Now Walter R. Borneman, a Colorado historian, attempts to describe Alaska's sweeping history in a single volume.

It is somewhat embarrassing to report that he has done a better job than many Alaskans.

In "Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land," he portrays the state's past in a series of vivid vignettes. He writes more for readers looking for adventure than for academics. Despite the book's length, it never drags.

Borneman emphasizes the vast scale of the landscape and tackles the state's big issues:

"Alaska's historic themes are surprisingly consistent and recurring: new land; new people; new riches and the ever-present competing views over their use," he says in his introduction.

The book presents Alaska's saga in short chapters grouped into chronological sections spanning the centuries from the eve of the Russian discovery to the start of the third millennium. It lacks photographs, but does include well-drawn maps.

Each chapter is almost a stand-alone historic tale, emphasizing colorful personalities who have shaped the state. In addition to writing about famous characters such as Ernest Gruening and Sheldon Jackson, it tells about lesser-known pioneers such as trader Arthur Harper, Haines ferry advocate Steve Homer and the Italian duke of Abruzzi, first to summit Mount Saint Elias.

Borneman tells these tales in an engaging style. His writing is clear, lively and, at times, dramatic or humorous. For example, rather than trying to untangle the labyrinth of lawsuits that grew out of the Nome gold rush, he tells us:

"Litigation in one case that involved whether a claim had been staked under a power of attorney or for the benefit of two Inupiat boys lasted 20 years, involved 11 different courts, and went to the U.S. Supreme Court four times. Reading it even today is enough to give third-year law students hives."

Borneman skimps on analysis but offers plenty of memorable information and lets readers draw their own conclusions. In the process, he reveals his own viewpoints but does an admirable job in objectively presenting controversies such as whether to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

An outdoor recreation enthusiast, his own interests influenced his choice of material. He effectively, but briefly, glosses over political wrangling and back-room business dealings; he lovingly lingers over tales of explorers and mountaineers. This is one book on Alaska history that tells as much about the Brooks Range as about Anchorage.

The book is remarkably even-handed geographically, finding something worth remarking on in nearly every corner of the Great Land.

Borneman devotes an entire chapter to the discovery of oil on the Kenai Peninsula and the first offshore fields in Cook Inlet.

"Before the arrival of the pipeline, Nikiski had been a sleepy little Tanaina Athabascan village. A few miles to the south at the mouth of the Kenai River, Kenai was bigger, but not by much. And Soldotna was barely more than a crossroads where the road west to Kenai split off from the Sterling Highway running south to Homer," he writes.

"The influx of oil field workers changed all of that."

Although Borneman hits all the high points (literally as well as figuratively), he omits some important items, such as the deadly effects of influenza epidemics on Alaska's Natives. He names fishing, along with tourism and logging, as renewable foundations of Alaska's economy, but neglects to mention the unprecedented threat competing farmed salmon poses to Alaska's fleet. A handful of other missed details, such as not knowing that the magnitude of the 1964 earthquake has been revised upward to 9.2 on the Richter scale, suggests that his knowledge of the state is more broad than deep.

Despite those lapses, Borneman and his editors are more meticulous than many Alaska historians covering the same territory.

"Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land" is a good read for anyone wanting to bone up on Alaska history without heavy-duty study. With its emphasis on wilderness exploits, it also is a good choice for anyone interested in tourism, outdoor activities and conservation issues. For readers wanting to get really serious about Alaska history, it offers a valuable counterpoint to Claus Naske's and Herman Slotnick's landmark "Alaska: A History of the 49th State."

Borneman may live in Colorado, but this book makes it plain that he has spent a lot of time in Alaska and spent it wisely. He tells Alaska's saga not only with skill and knowledge, but with sincere and infectious enthusiasm.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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