Monday, August 30, 2010

Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska by Miranda Weiss — 288 pgs


Book CoverIn this memoir of a first season spent living in Alaska, Miranda Weiss takes her readers through both the harshness and the beauty of one of the most beautiful places in America. When Miranda decides to leave Oregon and relocate to Alaska, she is unsure of many aspects of her future. Though she quickly becomes enamored of both the people and the land, she finds herself struggling in her personal relationship with John, the man she has traveled to Alaska with. Miranda is constantly and studiously trying to learn about herself and her surroundings in order to be prepared for every eventuality and to really know herself and this land she now calls home. As Miranda relates her stories of struggle and joy, she intersperses a wealth of little known information about Alaska, from its land to its people to the creatures that inhabit it. From the brazen and discordant sea that surrounds her, to the unspoiled yet littered lands that she lives on, Miranda shares her reflections on the many subjects that make Alaska simultaneously foreign and familiar. Though she is no doubt freer here in this wild place, Miranda is also beset by shifts both in her emotions and in her thoughts about the way of life she now leads. She speaks of the amazing and the everyday with equal respect and awe, and relates how this underdeveloped and under-examined piece of land can be both startling in its raw beauty and brutally dangerous in its complications. In this unflinching look at a life lived in Alaska, Miranda Weiss shares her unique perspective as both a resident and an outsider in a world that has not been completely tamed.

I am very much an armchair traveler, and when I get the chance to read a book about a place that I have never visited, I find that my interest in that place is heightened to the point of considering travel plans. The best memoirs of places unknown always inspire such a wanderlust in me and this book was certainly no exception. While reading this story, a little piece of my mind was trying to figure out a way to leave all my possessions behind and move out to what can only be described as a hauntingly beautiful landscape complete with local flavor, scenic views and a wonderful array of flora and fauna.

Despite the fact that I have a relative living in Alaska, I know very little about the area. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Weiss' solid and no-nonsense memoir was densely packed with information, relating both to her stay and to the land. Some of the facts revealed here laid out a very different picture than the one I had been expecting. For example, did you know that the Alaskan government actually pays its residents oil dividends each year? In essence, each resident gets a check every year, just for being part of the community. Also, in Alaska, there is a certain period when residents are allowed to wade into the bay during salmon spawning season and catch as many fish as they can entice into their nets. As Weiss explains, this is a very easy way for the inhabitants to catch enough fish to put away for the long cold winter. Such things seemed like novelties to me, but for Weiss and her fellow Alaskans, it was all a part of the way of life. Much mention was made about conservation of natural resources and it was interesting to me to find out that the parts of Alaska that were not being exploited for oil and other resources were primarily wild and uninhabited spaces. Weiss also speaks of the changes that have occurred in the recent years to fishing in Alaska. It seems that when one resource is exhausted, like shrimp and crab for example, another resource is tapped for the benefit of fisheries that ship all over the world.

One of the things I liked about this book was the way Weiss describes her life and stay in Alaska. I found her personal dramas to be some of the most compelling sections of the book, but I often felt that these were not explored in enough depth. It was curious that just when she would start to open up about her concerns over her relationship and way of life, she would quickly return to factual information about the land she has made her home. I came to feel that she was hiding within her narrative and I would have liked to see more of her heart and read more about her thought processes. Over all the layers of hurt and confusion, there seemed to be a patina of facts that, while they enabled me to get to know more about the land, kept me further and further away from the feelings of the actual woman who was penning this story.

Part of Weiss' conundrums over living in Alaska had to do with the qualities of the land itself. She explains that while it's a beautiful place, much of it has been spoiled by the constant pollution of its people. She relates how some stretches of land are littered with broken down and rusted vehicles, crab pots and other refuse. She comes to conclude that parts of the land are literally overrun by litter, which causes the landscape to look more dilapidated than it should. She also speaks about the environmental damage caused by fisheries and oil drilling. I was shocked to find out that oil was allowed to be drilled from private property over the objections of the owners. I think this has to do with unfettered access to the land that was sold to other countries. In all, Weiss paints a picture of a society and way of life that seems in danger of collapsing, which is really sad when you stop to think about it.

Not surprisingly, the relationships that Weiss forms with her neighbors and with others in her community seem to be a large part of survival in this hostile place. Time and time again, Weiss relates the ways in which one neighbor or friend helps another and the ways that these strings of acquaintances shape and affect the way that one can live successfully on the land. I find this to be really fascinating, for in most parts of this country, people have very little to do with their neighbors and community and it seems this is another foreign aspect to living in such a place. Alaskans, as Weiss notes, don't make judgments about the way that other people live, and whether it's in a trailer, tent or yurt, people seem to accept all ways and permutations of living their lives.

I really enjoyed the time I spent reading this book, and although I wish it there had been a little more of a personal bent to this story, I was excited to get the chance to learn so much about a place that was unknown to me. I think those readers who enjoy a comprehensive study of areas that might be unfamiliar to them would probably enjoy this book, but if you are looking for a memoir that deals with the more personal subjects of a life lived in Alaska, you might not find it here. Overall, this was a book that inspired me to want to travel, if not permanently, than at least for the short term!


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

12 comments:

Trisha said...

I have the same problem with reading about interesting geographical locations; suddenly I want to travel there. It's unfortunate I'm not rich, so I can't actually go to all the places I'd like. :)

Steph said...

I also really love armchair traveling to places I've never been. I've picked up a bunch on non-fic travel books, but generally I am just as happy to travel via fiction. Parts of this sound fascinating to me, but I wonder if like you I wouldn't wind up craving a slightly more personal story... Still, it sounds like a great way to introduce oneself to Alaska (certainly better than via Sarah Palin!).

Jenny said...

Wonderful review, as always! I am a big armchair traveler too, but I would say more frequently than otherwise reading travel books makes me want to stay in my comfy armchair with my clean water and central air and heat. :p

Suko said...

Lovely, thoughtful review, Zibilee. I am the same way, ready to pack my bags and travel to many of the destinations I read about, Alaska among them. It was interesting to learn that the residents get dividend checks from Alaskan oil, and that they are allowed to wade in the bay to catch salmon at certain times of the year! Of course, Alaska has it's problems, too, as you mention, but it does sound very enticing (although not as much so in the winter). But it sounds as if you wanted a more personal account from this author.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've been to Alaska, but still don't know much about it, except it is simply beautiful and saw very little of the pollution (not that I am doubting her, but they keep it well-hidden from the tourists). Those facts that you shared with us are fascinating. It sounds like a totally different country, not one of our 50 states. I also think your observation of the author hiding behind her prose is very insightful. I'm not sure I would have picked up on that.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I have been to Alaska a couple times (relatives) but when I was much younger. The book looks so interesting!

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

You have such a fabulous review technique. Most every book you review, I find myself wanting to buy it on line ASAP! You are bad for my pocketbook, but thanks again gore a terrific review!!!!

Amy said...

This sounds great - and I have to say the facts sound more interesting than the personal drama :) heh

Marie said...

Sounds like it's fun and chock-full of information. I like books like that as well as personal stories- just depends I guess! But yeah, I always want to go when I'm done with the book. It's a great book that fills you with even more curiosity!

softdrink said...

This sounds really interesting. I love armchair travelling, too, and Alaska has always fascinated me...it also scares the bejeebers out of me.

Literary Feline said...

My parents are taking a cruise to Alaska this next month and can't stop talking about everything they are going to do there.

It sounds like such a beautiful place, even if harsh. For now, I'll have to content myself to just reading about it.

Thank you for bringing this book to my attention!

Bookfool said...

I've been to Alaska twice and it is absolutely awe-inspiring. Beautiful, beautiful scenery, down-to-earth people who are incredibly open and friendly, tons of photo-ops. :) I did know about the annual checks Alaskans receive, thanks to a fellow from Alaska who lived in my husband's dorm at Oklahoma State and married a friend of mine. I guess that's not common knowledge, then, eh? LOL Great review!

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