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Michener's Alaska epic: fiction, fact, and imagined history

Alaska, by James A. Michener. New York: Random House. 868 pp. $22.50. James A. Michener creates epics about countries and states and their human and wildlife inhabitants, and makes speculations about human society and culture existing before recorded history. These creations are often vast and demanding because of their length and the author's ambition to include almost everything while remaining an entertaining novelist.

In his recent books, Michener has written prefaces to enable the reader to separate fact from fiction. ``Alaska'' has such a section, a two-page chapter-by-chapter outline. Reading a historical novel is always fun, but it is more informative if the reader is aware when the writer is taking creative liberties with people and events.

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Despite the wealth of background information, it is people rather than events that shape Michener's books. ``Alaska'' traces the earliest hunter inhabitants and their descendants, the Eskimos, Aleuts, Athapascans, and Tlingits, and later, Russians, Americans, and others.

These people and their experiences both dramatize and outline the history of the place. Azazruk, a shaman who lived ``when bears were as tall as trees,'' understood animal existence and questioned the seeming absurdity of death. His tribe wandered for 19 years until they discovered the Aleutian Islands, where they settled.

Much later, another character, John Klope, was one of thousands of who went to Alaska seeking gold. He found it and returned home, only to die penniless. Peter the Great is another character who, by sparing the life of one of his Cossacks, was instrumental in the settling of Alaska by the Russians. Particularly memorable is the fictional portrait of New England sea captain Noah Pym, who found a strange peace and spiritual awakening on an Alaskan island.

The most remarkable of Michener's people are women, who dominate the book by their strength and desire to transcend mere survival. They are creations not of a poetic vision but of circumstances in which people must be self-reliant or perish.

One Aleut woman, Cidaq, is one of the novel's strongest characters. In 1789, the Russians captured the Aleuts on Lapak Island, taking the men away to hunt sea otters and leaving the women to survive as best as they could. The women learn to use the kayak and harpoon, and put off to sea, where they manage to kill a 19-ton whale. Cidaq's grandmother sells her to Russian sailors, believing this would give the child a chance for survival. Despite rape, racism, repeated beatings, and humiliation, Cidaq becomes a Christian and marries a Russian clergyman. Another character, Missy Peckham, survives the trek to Alaska from the States, the loss of her lover and business, the failure of the gold rush to produce personal riches, and the decline of the boomtowns to become, in her later years, a social force in a modern Alaska.

When Michener is writing about the Klondike, it is reminiscent of a Max Brand adventure novel, wherein men read dictionaries for entertainment during the long, bitter winter months and organize dances for hundreds of men with perhaps one white, and a few nonwhite, women standing on the sidelines. In these boomtown streets, the mud is so deep that a horse can quietly disappear into the recently thawed ground. The chapter on the gold rush, titled ``Gold,'' could be a book in itself.

Unlike the Michener of plot-centered fictions such as ``Caravans'' and ``Fires of Spring,'' this writer is a journalist and popular historian who functions as do storytellers and oral historians, blending fact, fiction, and myth. Like his character the Ancient One in an early chapter of ``Alaska,'' he weaves all these elements into a narrative to inform the reader of the poetry that approaches truth in an imagined human and national history.

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Sam Cornish is a free-lance book reviewer.

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