The best authentic novels about Alaska by Alaskans

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a long-time Alaskan (and former Alaska writer laureate) with a passion for my place—its people, environment, and history. I’ve always read widely in its literature and have watched it mature from superficial “last frontier” stories into a complex and diverse wealth of authentic and well-told stories. Since 2015 I’ve reviewed books for the Anchorage Daily News and have made it my business to know and support the growing Alaska writing community. Alaska is particularly strong in nonfiction writing while fiction (other than mysteries and short stories) has been slower to develop, and I’ve chosen to highlight five examples of novels that present truths through imaginative leaps.


I wrote...

pH: A Novel

By Nancy Lord,

Book cover of pH: A Novel

What is my book about?

When marine biologist Ray Berringer and his student crew embark on an oceanographic cruise in the Gulf of Alaska, the waters are troubled in more ways than one. Ray’s co-leader, the famed chemist Jackson Oakley, is abandoning ship just as the ocean’s decreasing pH levels are becoming a major concern for marine life. Helen, a grad student of Iñupiat (Eskimo) heritage, is suddenly left in charge of the cruise’s chemistry work. Annabel, an environmental artist, who came along to help interpret research for the public, “does her own thing.” Back ashore, corrosion extends to the state university, and Ray’s “pteropod gang” finds itself collaborating on more than science. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ordinary Wolves

Nancy Lord Why did I love this book?

Kantner’s book, from 2004, is the first literary novel, in my judgment, to present an authentic view of contemporary Alaska.

The story (thinly disguised from the author’s own life) is told by a white boy growing up in a remote northern part of Alaska, living with his family as an earlier generation of Inupiaq people did. The boy fits in with neither the modernizing Inupiaq of a nearby village nor the white world, although he is very much at ease with the natural world and the skills his life demands.

When he later tries city life, the contrast is stark and painful. Kantner presents both worlds in exquisite detail as he explores larger themes about values, choices, and human relationships. Ordinary Wolves won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.

By Seth Kantner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ordinary Wolves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ordinary Wolves depicts a life different from what any of us has known: Inhuman cold, the taste of rancid salmon shared with shivering sled dogs, hunkering in a sod igloo while blizzards moan overhead. But this is the only world Cutuk Hawcley has ever known. Born and raised in the Arctic, he has learned to provide for himself by hunting, fishing, and trading. And yet, though he idolizes the indigenous hunters who have taught him how to survive, when he travels to the nearby Inupiaq village, he is jeered and pummeled by the native children for being white. When he…


Book cover of Jimmy Bluefeather

Nancy Lord Why did I love this book?

Set in Southeast Alaska, Jimmy Bluefeather honestly depicts both environmental and generational change.

A Tlingit-Norwegian canoe carver anticipates the end of his life while his grandson struggles with his own future and a whale biologist resists authority in favor of moral action. Heacox grounds his beautifully-written story in considerable research as well as with respect for cultural beliefs and practices.

The canoe carver in particular is well-drawn and memorable, with toughness, resilience, and humor earned from living close to the Earth and its waters, in a place of stories. A canoe journey carries the story into a wild landscape, questions about conflicts between economic development and the preservation of lands and cultural values, and understandings of human frailty and strength. 

By Kim Heacox,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jimmy Bluefeather as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Winner, National Outdoor Book Award

"Part quest, part rebirth, Heacox's debut novel spins a story of Alaska's Tlingit people and the land, an old man dying, and a young man learning to live."
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A splendid, unique gem of a novel."
-Library Journal (starred review)

"Heacox does a superb job of transcending his characters' unique geography to create a heartwarming, all-American story."
-Booklist

"What makes this story so appealing is the character Old Keb. He is as finely wrought and memorable as any character in contemporary literature and energizes the tale with a humor and warmth that…


Book cover of To the Bright Edge of the World

Nancy Lord Why did I love this book?

Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her subsequent novel, lesser known, is more ambitious and by far my favorite of the two.

Set in 1885, To the Bright Edge of the World tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester’s government reconnaissance mission up the Wolverine River into Alaska’s interior. A secondary story belongs to Sophie, Forrester’s pregnant wife, left behind to be tested in other ways.

The novel’s inspiration is a real expedition of that year up the Copper River, and Ivey does a masterful job of creating a world both accurate to the time period and, drawing upon recorded Alaska Native stories, suffused with the supernatural. Plot, characters, language, and mystery—these all come together in a brilliant work.

By Eowyn Ivey,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked To the Bright Edge of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE EDWARD STANFORD TRAVEL WRITING AWARDS 2016.

Set in the Alaskan landscape that she brought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD (a Sunday Times bestseller, Richard and Judy pick and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Eowyn Ivey's TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD is a breathtaking story of discovery set at the end of the nineteenth century, sure to appeal to fans of A PLACE CALLED WINTER.

'A clever, ambitious novel' The Sunday Times

'Persuasive and vivid... what could be a better beach read than an Arctic adventure?' Guardian


'Stunning and intriguing... the reader finishes…


Book cover of The Alaskan Laundry

Nancy Lord Why did I love this book?

Set in the 1990s, this very engaging novel tracks the arrival of a young, angry, and confused Tara Marconi to a southeast Alaska town and then follows her as she matures alongside a set of memorable and often damaged characters.

The depictions of small-town life and the fishing industry are well-wrought, as are the conflicts that many Alaskans face with themselves, their pasts, and the environment. This counts as a coming-of-age story but is unique in its depiction of a strong, smart, and adaptable young woman finding her true, independent self in a place where self-realization is not just allowed but encouraged.

At its most basic, The Alaskan Laundry is a testament to how places and spaces shape us, and how we find where we belong. 

By Brendan Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Alaskan Laundry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the icy waters of the Bering Sea, a lost, fierce young woman finds herself through the hard work of fishing and the stubborn love of real friendship.

Tara Marconi has made her way from Philly to “the Rock,” a remote island in Alaska governed by the seasons. Her mother’s death left her unmoored, with a seemingly impassable rift between her and her father. But in this majestic, rugged frontier she works her way up the commercial fishing ladder—from hatchery assistant all the way to king crabber. Disciplined from years as a young boxer, she learns anew what it means…


Book cover of Sivulliq: Ancestor

Nancy Lord Why did I love this book?

Alaska’s Indigenous people—expert storytellers and artists—have yet to author many works of fiction, so it’s a pleasure to have discovered this new novel by a writer of Inupiaq heritage.

Set in 1893 during a smallpox epidemic, Sivulliq features two viewpoint characters—an Inupiaq mother whose small daughter is kidnapped by a commercial whaling captain and a Black whaler on the whaling ship. The fast-paced plot follows the family’s efforts to find the ship and rescue the child, while life aboard the ship is narrated by the reluctant whaler.

The historic truths brought to life here include the devastation of Native Alaskans from disease and famine, the prevalence of Black whalers and the often-brutal conditions on board, and Inupiaq spiritual connections (then and now) to the land and ancestors. 

By Lily H Tuzroyluke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sivulliq as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1893, arctic Alaska is devastated by smallpox. Kayaliruk knows it is time to light the funeral pyres and leave their home. With her surviving children, she packs their dog sled and they set off to find family. Kayaliruk wakes with a bleeding scalp and no memory of the last day. Her daughter was stolen by Yankee whalers, her sons say. They begin chasing the ship, through arctic storms, across immeasurable distances, slipping into the Yankee whalers' town on Herschel Island, and to the enemy shores of Siberia. Ibai, an African American whaler, grew up in New…


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Alaska, American Indians, and presidential biography?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Alaska, American Indians, and presidential biography.

Alaska Explore 98 books about Alaska
American Indians Explore 217 books about American Indians
Presidential Biography Explore 19 books about presidential biography