The best books by real Alaskans about the dark, gritty, beautiful truth of Alaska

Charles Wohlforth Author Of The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change
By Charles Wohlforth

Who am I?

I've never been anything but a writer, despite growing up and spending my first 50 years in Alaska. Alaska has been my major topic—what else could it be in that overwhelmingly powerful place?—but it has also been my frustration, because Alaska is a real place that exists in most readers’ minds only as a romantic vision, and they resist any other version. Like the real Eskimos in my book, whose world is melting from climate change as they pump millions of barrels of crude oil from their homeland. The writers I chose are all Alaskans, like me, who tell those stories about the magical, terrifying place that lies behind the Disney version you already know.

I wrote...

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

By Charles Wohlforth,

Book cover of The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

What is my book about?

Some 20 years ago, Charles Wohlforth, a life-long Alaskan, was on hand with traditional Inupiat whalers on the sea ice north of Alaska as they first came to grips with how climate change was melting the world their ancestors had taught them to subsist upon. Wohlforth describes a whale-hunting party racing to shore, their comrades trapped on a floe drifting out to sea on ice that should be solid. Elsewhere, a team of scientists transverses the tundra, sleeping in tents, surviving on frozen chocolate, and measuring the snow every ten kilometers in a quest to understand the same phenomenon of change. Wohlforth lives with both groups, portrays their hopes and conflicts, and shows the radically different ways they perceive the shifting landscape and its profound changes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Epic of Qayaq: The Longest Story Ever Told by My People

Why did I love this book?

This is an ancient, novel-length tale of a hero in the Alaska wilderness near the dawn of time, confronting the cruelty and grief endemic in a world in which survival always hangs on the luck and skill of the hunter. Oman, who died in 2018 at 102, told me 30 years ago about holding onto the Qayaq story, even through the years when her cultural practices were effectively outlawed. She grew up at a time in Kotzebue when her father, a shaman, could only tell the ancient stories of her Inupiaq people at night, in secret, vouchsafing them with her for another generation. As an adult she continued collecting them, and then, in her old age, published this graceful and haunting story, which seems to reach to us from another world.

By Lela Kiana Oman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is a splendid presentation of an ancient northern story cycle, brought to life by Lela Kiana Oman, who has been retelling and writing the legends of the Inupiat of the Kobuk Valley, Alaska, nearly all her adult life. In the mid-1940s, she heard these tales from storytellers passing through the mining town of Candle, and translated them from Inupiaq into English. Now, after fifty years, they illuminate one of the world's most vibrant mythologies. The hero is Qayaq, and the cycle traces his wanderings by kayak and on foot along four rivers - the Selawik, the Kobuk, the Noatak…

Book cover of The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness

Why did I love this book?

Haines was best known as a poet, highly respected by other writers but uncompromising and without much commercial success or recognition. This collection of essays in the form of a memoir similarly makes no compromise, dispensing with plot, characters, or even a clear sense of time and geography. Instead, Haines takes the reader deep into the mind of a lone man surviving for decades in the harshest wilderness, thinking, observing, and writing—his own mind. And the writing is so strong, it turns out, that he doesn’t need those usually necessary tools of narrative he pointedly ignores. Instead, we feel the cold, see the hypnotic stars above the snow, and feel the brittle edge of aloneness. Through sheer stylistic austerity, those dark lonely nights are real.

By John Meade Haines,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stars, the Snow, the Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this wilderness classic, the quintessential Alaskan frontiersman relates his experiences from over twenty years as a hoemsteader. As New York Newsday has said of his work, If Alaska had not existed, Haines might well have invented it.''

Book cover of To the Bright Edge of the World

Why did I love this book?

Ivey’s novel imagines a magical realist mystery and adventure in the rocky and forbidding country where she herself lives, up a steep dirt road in Alaska’s backcountry. Like her first novel, The Snow Child, which was an international phenomenon, this story is thick with metaphor. But this second book is more mature, as well as hauntingly written and absolutely compelling and resistant to being put down. I read it while at a remote Alaska cabin myself, and I felt surrounded by the spirits she describes, as if transported back to that period, just before the indigenous world was trampled by White newcomers, when the land and trees themselves still had the ability to exchange form with humans. 

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?


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 Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

Why did I love this book?

Kizzia’s prose and reporting are unequaled, but this dark, Gothic tale is hard to read because of the real-life horror it exposes. The Pilgrim family came to Alaska in 2002, wrapping themselves in fundamentalist Christianity and fighting with the federal government like true pioneers in the wilderness—they became a cause for the right because of how they seemed to fulfill Alaska’s frontier myth. But it turned out the patriarch of the family had created a weird prison of rape and abuse for his uneducated children, which Kizzia was able to get inside with vividly told scenes. And that truth tells us even more about Alaska, which has the worst rate of rape in the nation and a shocking level of child abuse. 

By Tom Kizzia,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pilgrim's Wilderness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness—and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.
When Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy, their new neighbors saw them as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal. But behind the family's proud piety and beautiful old-timey music lay Pilgrim's dark past: his strange  connection to the Kennedy assassination and a trail of chaos and anguish that followed him from Dallas and New Mexico.…

Ordinary Wolves

By Seth Kantner,

Book cover of Ordinary Wolves

Why did I love this book?

Kantner’s autobiographical novel tells of growing up in a sod igloo on the tundra of northwest Alaska, just one of many animals surviving against the cold, bare earth. The physical and emotional hardships are extraordinary and unique—especially the racial aspects of being a White child in an indigenous world—but even more remarkable is how Kantner tells the tale. The narrator comes to us with the narrow and naïve mind of the child, and the details, so vivid and harsh, never seem more than a centimeter from the reader’s nose. I’ve never read a novel that so completely and unnervingly took me into another person’s experience in the moment. The author completely disappears—or is completely, ubiquitously present—I was never sure.

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…

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