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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 9.2 (2007) 173-176

Reviewed by
Nancy Lord

Alaska, resource-rich and population-thin, has always had a colonial aspect to it—from its history as an actual Russian colony, to its domination by extractive multinational corporations, to its occupation by writers from afar. Aside from John McPhee's now classic Coming into the Country in 1977, little published about Alaska, for a very long time, transcended simplistic and superficial clichés about life in the North. In the last decade, though, a new generation of Alaskan writers has been creating remarkably original, well-grounded, and thoughtful works that resonate far beyond their borders. It may not be surprising that so many of these literary accounts celebrate the natural world and life lived close to the land (and water) while also asking that we heed environmental lessons and warnings. Here are three of my favorites. (I should disclose that Alaska's writing community remains small, and I know and respect all three of these authors as citizens and colleagues as well as writers.) [End Page 173]

The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, by Marybeth Holleman. The University of Utah Press, 2004. 209 pages, cloth, $21.95.

This beautifully written memoir is a love story—for Alaska's Prince William Sound, for wilderness, for life in all its intricacies and disasters. The author, who came to Alaska as a young adult, found a deeply soul-satisfying landscape that became intimately bound up with her human relationships and motherhood. The devastating 1989 oil spill shook apart her world and served as the catalyst for a provocative inquiry into the nature of love, grief and healing, and our human responsibilities to the lands and waters we treasure.

"There are questions I didn't even know to ask when I first came to Prince William Sound," Holleman writes in her prologue. "These are questions that now feel increasingly vital to living here, to living anywhere on Earth." These are the questions any of us might ask, anywhere, about how we form relationships to places, how we alter the places we inhabit, how we are ourselves transformed.

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change, by Charles Wohlforth. North Point Press, 2004. 322 pages, cloth, $25.00.

Wohlforth, an Alaskan since the age of three, is primarily a journalist, and this work of literary journalism is a timely exploration into the climate-change issue. The author earned the trust of Inupiat whale hunters, who allowed him to accompany them onto the ice and into their homes. He also followed scientists into the field and their labs. His exhaustive research, adherence to fact, documentation, and analysis are much to be admired, as is his respect for those he interviews and interacts with.

Most readers probably know that the effects of climate change (or global warming) are most readily apparent in the high latitudes, and Wohlforth immerses us in the two cultures—the first owning traditional ecological knowledge, and the second trained in western science—to present us with their complementary findings. He effectively acts as an interpreter, explaining both Inupiat worldviews and scientific theories to a general readership that may find both quite foreign to their own experience and education. He is particularly gifted at using example and metaphor to illuminate some [End Page 174] of the more difficult scientific principles, and he presents the whole issue within a compelling and well-crafted narrative.

Towards the end, Wohlforth engages in a thoughtful philosophical discussion about the difficulties of effecting human change when the benefits will accrue only to the future, a grim assessment he then lightens with further reflection about northern knowledge and leadership. The dream, he writes, is "a cultural transformation that allows many people, as one, to see the natural world as it...


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