Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review - Alaska and Journey by James Michener (Relative Reads)

This is the first in a new series I will be spotlighting here at Need More Shelves, entitled Relative Reads. I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send my some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek. =)

The first books I decided to tackle were Alaska and Journey, both by James Michener, recommended by my Grandpa Warren. (Here's a picture of my grandparents, taken this holiday season.)

Journey actually started out as a section of Alaska, and was eventually cut and made into its own novel, so it made sense to me to read them together.

First, Alaska -

Synopsis from B&N:

In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us across Alaska’s fierce terrain, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling technological present, as his characters struggle for survival. The exciting high points of Alaska’s story, from its brutal prehistory, through the nineteenth century and the American acquisition, to its modern status as America’s thriving forty-ninth state, are brought vividly to life in this remarkable novel: the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the discovery of oil and its social and economic consequences; the difficult construction of the Alcan Highway, which made possible the defense of the territory in World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community struggling to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic history of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.

My thoughts:

Wow. It's almost hard to put into words my reaction to such a vast novel. Michener literally traces the entire history of Alaska - his first chapter deals with the crashing together of plates that formed the region into its mountainous terrain. Next, he introduces us to the animals that would have inhabited the region before humans moved onto the scene. It's hard to describe his style of writing, because it is very detailed, almost in a textbook sort of way, but it never feels like reading a dry history book. It is very much a novel, with excitement brimming on each page.

Michener must have done an enormous amount of research before writing this novel, and in the front of the book he details, section by section, which characters and situations are historical fact, and which are author inventions to further the action of the novel. He is able to weave the fact and the fiction together so seamlessly that I was never aware of which was which. It is quite an accomplishment to write an 800+ page novel that never feels too long, but I was definitely left wanting more.

I was completely captivated by the characters he created, from the men and women of the native people to the animals who survived next to them. On several occasions he writes from an animal's perspective, and manages to not make that seem weird. Only after I had put the book down did I think, "Wow, I just read about salmon spawning from the salmon's point of view - that's never happened before." I appreciated that he wrote female characters who were just as strong and capable as their male counterparts - the people who settled Alaska were incredibly brave, and he allowed us to experience their journeys along with them in a completely fascinating way.

One of the best parts of the novel, for me, was feeling like I was learning about the history of our country as I was reading. I know one of the reasons my Grandpa enjoys Michener so much is that he includes so much history and geography in his novels, and in this one particularly there is much Grandpa would be able to relate to. He was stationed in the Pacific Theater during WWII, so when Michener describes the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, that is something he would have been very familiar with. (This is a picture of my grandparents, circa WWII - aren't they a handsome couple!)

Also, when the US government selected Minnesota families to move to Alaska to start a new life during the Depression, they were chosen from the area in which Grandpa grew up. He loaned me his own copy of the novel, and in it he underlined the names of the cities he knew, as well as other events and ideas he remembered from that time. I really enjoyed reading about a part of history that my own family lived through - amazing.

I did have a little bit of trouble with the pacing of the novel - because Michener covers SO MUCH ground, each chapter is essentially about a new era of Alaska's development, and much of the time would involve a completely new set of characters. I found that prevented me from becoming completely engrossed in the story, since I had to acquaint myself with a new cast each time. However, it would be ideal for someone who reads more than one book at a time - this is the type of novel that could easily be set aside, and resumed a few days later. Also, I felt like it ended rather abruptly - suddenly, we were just done! That's an odd thing to say for such a long novel, I know, but true.

In general, however, I loved this book. It was a fascinating and encompassing look at a place I would love to visit someday!

Finished: 2/8/09
Rating: 8/10

Next, Journey -

Synposis from B&N:

Gold fever swept the world in 1897. The chance for untold riches sent thousands of dreamers on a perilous trek toward their fortunes, failures, or deaths. Follow four English aristocrats and their Irish servant as they misguidedly haul their dreams across cruel Canadian terrain toward the Klondike gold fields.

My thoughts:

Another completely engrossing novel, and I am happy I read these two back to back. At the end of Journey, Michener discusses why he ultimately decided to take this story out of its original place in the novel Alaska, and it makes sense. However, I found it a very compelling read, having so recently finished the first novel.

Because Journey is so much shorter (just over 300 pages), I found it much more difficult to put down. This is not a feel-good novel, as much of what happens to the main characters is quite tragic. I will admit that I am not a fan of Lord Lutton, who would probably be considered the novel's lead - he was extremely pompous an arrogant, and much of the tragedy is a direct result of his inability to admit he made bad decisions. The other characters were much more sympathetic, which made the events even more sad.

This novel would be a great introduction to Michener for someone who has considered reading his work, but is intimidated by the length of his other stories. It gives a good example of the writing style, but won't break your shoulder being lugged around in a bag. (Or am I the only one that does that?)

At the end of Journey, Michener talks about his three goals in writing these two novels:

"I wanted to help the American public to think intelligently about the arctic, where large portions of future international history might well focus; I wanted to remind my readers that Russia had held Alaska for a longer period, 127 years (1741 through 1867 inclusive), than the United States had held it, 122 years (1867 through 1988); and I particularly desired to acquaint Americans with the role that neighboring Canada had played and still does play in Alaskan history."

I feel like he accomplished each one of those goals in the two books, and I absolutely have been converted to a Michener lover! I will certainly be reading more of his novels in the future.

Finished: 2/14/08
Rating: 8/10


Mom said...

Grandpa will be so glad to learn you've read these two! He just asked me again the other day if I knew whether you had read/enjoyed his "picks." I'll send him a copy of your reviews. Thanks for including the photos.

Anonymous said...

This is a great idea. I love the pictures of your grandparents - they're adorable.

Marcia said...

Like Kathy I love this idea. Lucky you!

Stephanie said...

Your grandparents are so cute! :)

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Love the photos! And glad you liked a born-n-bred Alaskan, I think Michener captured the spirit that is inherent in most Alaskans. That's a hard essence to capture, but he managed it. ;)

bookfool said...

The summer that Michener was in Alaska doing research, 1985, he stopped for a while in Kodiak, Alaska. Kodiak is the place where the first white settlers landed, and has an interesting history.

We were there during that time, my husband was building the Senior Citizen Center next door to the really beautiful Russian Orthodox Church.

Michener had a question/answer session at the local community college as a thank you to the community for all their help.

The man was fascinating. It was a thrill to meet him, shake his hand and have him autograph the only book I had with me at the time that he had written. I told him that I had loved his books since I was 16 and read my first one. He replied, "Which book was it?" I told him it was The Drifters. He chuckled and said, "Oh, so you're the one who read it..."

BTW--The Source is my favorite Michener, followed by Centennial.

Elizabeth said...

Bermuda and Stephanie - thanks! I'm going to post pictures of each family member when it's their turn - I have quite the attractive clan!

Marcia - I know, I am lucky.

Michele - it's good to know that his portrayal of Alaskans is essentially true. I'd thought that, based on a couple of friends of mine who are born and bred, but I'm glad to have confirmation.

bookfool - what a cool story! I always like to hear that authors I enjoy are interesting people, as well. And thanks for the recommends - I've been eyeing The Source.

Mom - love you.