I can’t figure out why James Michener gets such short shrift. Is it because he’s too popular? Or because he had help with his painstaking geographical research? The critical disregard doesn’t bother me, though, except that I wish there was someone with whom I could chat about the most recent book I loved, Alaska.
Published in 1988, the story opens before the landmass exists, and the characters are given names like “Mastodon,” a mastodon, and “Matriarch,” a battle-ax of an old woolly mammoth. Later we meet humans like Tevuk and the benevolent priest Azazruk, but it isn’t for a hundred massive pages that characters with pronounceable names like “Captain Cook” are introduced.
There is much to love about Alaska, including Michener’s carefully stylized prose, the detail that he paints with the widest brush in all of modern literature, and the way he manages to illustrate the complexity of even the most ancient human social dynamics. But what I’ll always remember about the book is the tragic story of Cidaq. It is about strength and radical faith prevailing over injustice and the limits of whatever truths we humans find “self-evident.” It’s not unlike the Grand Inquisitor section in The Brothers Karamazov, but I found it a hundred times more powerful.
Can it be recounted? Not quickly, but I’ll give it a shot:
Some hunters from Russia pillage an Aleutian tribe and take all of the men into slavery. The women are left behind to die in the harsh, interminable winters. The spirits forbade women to hunt, so they are hopelessly untrained in providing food for themselves. But out of necessity they try, and with fourteen-year-old Cidaq at the helm of a kayak, they manage to harpoon a 19-ton whale. From that victory they are able to make it through a year.
Then another Russian ship arrives on their island, and the women of the tribe pay passage for Cidaq to sail to civilization. As if it were part of the deal, she is used and beaten and discarded along the way. Men are horrible, especially her chief torturer – a hulk named Rudenko. Even when she arrives at Kodiak, where the Aleutian men of her island have been enslaved, she is no better off. Itself a barren land, no one lives on Kodiak with any comfort – least of all a young girl among so many overworked men. She is passed around. She finds a moment’s reprieve, though, when she sees Rudenko shove off on a ship heading toward certain death on Seal Island, a prison community from which no one returns.
From far away, a shaman named Lunasaq arrives to save the wretched slaves, and he takes Cidaq into his care. He introduces her to a mummy whom he identifies as an immortal spirit that controls the world, and using ventriloquism, tricks the hardened girl into believing him. She comes to rely on the kind conversations she has with Lunasaq and the mummy. (The two, in comic relief, tend to disagree.) With Lunasaq’s help and the example of the mummy’s perseverance, Cidaq adjusts to her miserable conditions, and she begins to thrive in the climate. She learns Russian. She grows healthy.
Then Rudenko escapes from Seal Island and makes his way back to Kodiak. When he’s discovered, he argues that he can’t be sent away again, for his wife is here. His wife, he lies, is Cidaq. Of course. At the same time, a well-meaning Russian missionary named Father Vasili arrives at Kodiak. His task is to convert the natives. He takes this opportunity to marry Rudenko to Cidaq – who doesn’t object because she sees it as an opportunity to avenge herself. However, along the way to the marriage and vengeance, and not without a lot of strong, emotional objection, Cidaq starts to find meaning in the evangelical precepts as Vasili describes them. She accepts Christianity and her name is changed to Sofia Kuchovskaya. Naturally, an enmity develops between the shaman and Vasili, the Christian.
Sofia becomes a woman of intense spiritual fervor, but she can see no way to help Rudenko, who tortured her so completely, and she refuses to marry him. But at Vasili’s earnest request, and because of Christ’s witness, she finally relents. She takes the vow to care for the wicked man and his soul, which she tries to see as capable of redemption. No matter – the hardhearted lout continues to beat her. And yet she perseveres, even when Rudenko and his friends slay the shaman, whom she has maintained a high regard for. In a particularly touching scene, Vasili ministers with humility to the dying shaman – not as a last ditch effort to convert him, but out of genuine and miserable pity.
Now the officials threaten to punish Rudenko. Before they get the chance, though, the brute dies in an act of heroism. In that way he is finally redeemed. It’s meaningful that Michener would allow him this salvation after using his authorial power to reveal the Russian as one of the most wicked characters I’ve encountered in a book. I think it underscores Michener’s commitment to portraying humans as multiplicitous beings, not devices for storytelling.
That’s the scope of Michener’s writing. In telling the story of Cidaq’s two conversions – first to shamanism and then to Christianity – he employs the depth of Kierkegaard’s consideration of anxiety, the complexity of St. Paul’s epistles. His treatment of Cidaq’s salvation is complete in its grit and, in its baseness, pure. Eventually Cidaq, as Sofia, weds Vasili – itself an excruciating complication for Vasili, whose love for her proves stronger than the black robes of his faith. The plot twists wrench guts like Jane Austen at her most demented, but through the rough-wrought landscape of Alaska, Michener misses no angles in an invisible map of emotional and spiritual intersections.