Friday, August 17, 2018

The Alaskan by James Oliver Curwood

Hyperromantic Northwestern shoot-’em-up
I recently traveled to Alaska and wanted to read some classic literature related to the region. Having read everything by Jack London, I turned to the next best thing, Michigan author James Oliver Curwood. Like London, Curwood wrote many novels of the Klondike Gold Rush, several of them with canine protagonists, and other “Northwesterns”—essentially Westerns set in Alaska and the Yukon. His novel The Alaskan was published in 1923.

As the novel opens, a steamer is heading north from Seattle through the Inside Passage on its way to Nome. On board is Alan Holt, a laconic, rather reclusive reindeer rancher who is returning home to his grazing lands after a long sojourn in the lower 48. Though a white man, Holt is a native Alaskan, meaning he was born in the territory. Also on board is Mary Standish, a beautiful young woman, obviously new to the region, who is traveling alone. The reason for her journey to Alaska is unknown to Holt and to the reader. When the two meet, Mary asks Alan to act as her escort and educate her about Alaska. Neither has any intention of romantic involvement with the other, but how long do you think that’s going to last? Shortly after meeting Mary, Alan notices another passenger on the ship, a shifty character of bad reputation named Rossland. From their behavior, it appears that Mary and Rossland have met before, and Alan wonders what connection these two have shared in the past.

To Curwood, Holt qualifies as a hero because he’s an independent self-made man who has wrestled a fortune from the land through resource extraction. (How does a white man come to own a herd of 10,000 reindeer?) On the other hand, the novel’s villain, John Graham, represents corporate interests who take resource extraction too far, raping the land of its bounty and beauty. Alan respects the Natives and they love him like a father figure. As Curwood depicts it, however, Alan’s role in this relationship comes across suspiciously like that of a benevolent slave holder. Curwood argues that Alaska requires American capital so that more men like Alan can develop its resources, while he naively ignores the rights of the Natives and fails to foresee the inevitability of more John Grahams.

Though chronologically later than London’s tales of the North, Curwood’s novel reads as more old-fashioned, more genteel, more romantic—a sort of “London lite,” if you will. Curwood’s writing more closely resembles British-Canadian author Harold Bindloss’s novels of manners set in British Columbia and Alberta. The Alaskan positively drips with Victorian-era chivalry. If the book were written a couple decades later, Alan and Mary would bicker for a while before they found love, but here there’s nothing to argue about because they are both flawless specimens of their type: he the knight in shining armor and she the damsel in distress. The romance between the two is expressed in the most idealistic of terms, and the slow-moving narrative is really too concerned with each and every interior emotion at the expense of action.

It takes about 20 chapters just to figure out Mary’s back story, but once the plot gets down to business it turns into a surprisingly gritty shoot-’em-up. Curwood may be prudish about sexuality, but he’s not prudish about brutality. Rape is a threat constantly hinted at throughout the book, and when the good guys and bad guys clash it makes for a no-holds-barred battle. While much of the novel is predictable, it does not end the way one would expect, which is to its credit. If the whole book were as good as its last four or five chapters, it might have been a great adventure classic. As it stands, however, it’s just pretty good.
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