Fascinating things happened last week that will relate to Alaskan literature. One was a family drama of my grandmother getting sick. Thankfully I am far removed from it but I have an uncle, my grandmother's son, who is there but far removed as far as my mother and her sisters are concerned. This uncle has a drinking problem where he gets broody, not loud. My mother and her sisters are terrible to him, but I was like, "What? You three are just more discreet about your vices and keep up appearances better!" Whenever I have seen this uncle, he doesn't drink when I am around and he tells great stories, probably because I pay attention to him and bring out his strengths. I called him the other night and talked to his wife, my aunt. I wanted to make sure that he knew how sick my grandma was and that I wanted to send my moral support. My aunt told me how our family is-- they are a lower rung of [City Name] Society and have all these expectations on each other. She explained how things get dictated down there and how rigid it is and that yes, it really was an embarrassment to my grandmother that I have had so many children because they don't do big families there. She told me how she and my uncle admired my late father coming to Alaska. "You know, he went up there to get away from all this sh--, just like people have been doing for a hundred years!" I was floored-- my dad joked that he went up there to get away from my mother's family, but I thought it was to get a great job selling heavy equipment on the pipeline. My aunt said that he'd have gone up anyway even if there hadn't been a job waiting for him.
Last night I had to pick up my husband in The City. He suggested that we go to Barnes and Nobel, which is my home away from home there. I went to the fiction section and there was a professor-type watching me brain-absently flipping through some books. He asked if I was inspired. I said, "No! I am taking a distance ed class through Fairbanks on Alaskan literature and I'm not getting it! This literature makes me feel cold! I am hating it." (This guy is an adjunct prof.) He asked what I'd read and what I liked. I told him that I liked McPhee and Women of the Klondike, and that Margaret Murie was OK. More questions about what I liked (I think he was getting a base with me to start relating things) then about what I didn't like. He explained to me that Alaskan literature is all about people getting away from something to do it on their own. Of course that is a prevailing theme, but I missed it because I was paying attention to the details! (The growing amber beard in To Build a Fire makes me gag.)
A few people had gathered around to listen to this guy talk and one of them brought up To Build a Fire and said that it was about man's determination to survive but because of a few stupid mistakes, caused by being new and not understanding the forces of nature, he lost his life. I mentioned "the amber beard" and he said it was just a detail and that I needed to run off copies of the story and cross them out if I don't like them, then see if they fit in.
I have taken so much for granted-- my aunt said that if I lived in their area that I'd have probably bucked the system and left the area. She said that I have that spirit that my dad had. During the lecture at Barnes and Nobel, my husband said that I may be taking a lot for granted. When I was nine years old, I went down to see my extended family and they kept asking if we lived in igloos and I was shocked by the stupidity of the questions, "Why on earth would my father have us live in an ice house when it's so cold already?" I'm blond Irish and one of my sisters is more olive skinned and people would say, "You're from Alaska? You don't look Eskimo!" I'd look at my hands in horror, "I'm changing back! Constance, look at you! You're getting whiter!" (People really thought that I really was "changing back" as if something about the northern latitude made us get darker skinned and that we'd get lighter when we went south!) I showed them pictures of Fairbanks in the summer, of the previous year at the Golden Days Parade and they refused to believe that it was Alaska. Several cousins would come to visit the next year in the summer and everyone was laughing at them because they got off the plane with parkas, mittens, face masks-- "We thought you were joking."
The professor pointed out that I took a lot for granted, the attitudes and assumptions as stupid and ignored them for the class. He must have talked for two hours-- bouncing a lot of his discussion off my ignorance, but I started to see how my own family fit in with the stories of Alaska and how I have ignored so much because I didn't know how to read this. A woman in the group said that in a lot of what I'd read, "You have been focusing on warts, like you found something you didn't like and couldn't read past it. You don't know how appreciate the skeleton of the stories!"
It was all quite exciting to listen to that man and I told him that I wished I'd seen him before, but he pointed out, "You'd not have been frustrated and had an obvious dislike of the genre which prompted me to talk to you!"
I was grateful for the enlightenment. I wish that someone from the college had seen that man hold the crowd-- he should teach full time.