Cover image for Narrow road to the deep north : a journey into the interior of Alaska
Narrow road to the deep north : a journey into the interior of Alaska
McNamara, Katherine, 1946-
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Publication Information:
San Francisco, Calif. : Mercury House, [2001]

Physical Description:
289 pages ; 23 cm
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E99.A86 M377 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Cultural Writing. Travel. American Indian Studies. Abandoning her sojourn in Paris's literary culture in her late 20s, Katherine McNamara traveled to Alaska in 1976 'to learn how to live. The oil industry was ravaging Alaska's vast spaces...[and] as an iternant poetry teacher in the school districts of Alaska's interior, McNamara both witnessed and participated in the heartbreaking efforts of [the Athabaskan] people to fend off the destruction of their culture... McNamara's story centers in part on her brief...relationship with a Dena'ina Athabaskan man...Whether writing about intimate relationships, poetry or the intricacies of village life, her approach is full of grace and equanimity -- Publishers Weekly. This is the closest any Wasichu of our time will come to understanding the religion of Native nations... -- Larry Woiwode.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Abandoning her sojourn in Paris's literary culture in her late 20s, McNamara traveled to Alaska in 1976 "to learn how to live." The oil industry was ravaging Alaska's vast spaces and, together with alcohol and drugs, eroding the fundamental values of the Athabaskan people. As an itinerant poetry teacher in the school districts of Alaska's interior, McNamara both witnessed and participated in the heartbreaking efforts of these people to fend off the destruction of their culture. Rich with affectionate, precise profiles of native people and white outsiders, McNamara's story centers in part on her brief and increasingly conflicted relationship with F, a graceful and troubled Dena'ina Athabaskan man, "a warrior-hunter, taken out of time, out of place." While living in F's small village, McNamara struggled to understand the knowledge that is deeply woven into the timeless and mysterious stories that "illuminate and preserve life" and that lie at the heart of Dena'ina existence. She found that acquiring such knowledge demands attention to ordinary and meaning-laden Dena'ina protocol: eye contact or the lack thereof, the avoidance of confrontation, and the acknowledgment of the physicality and spirituality of other animals. Above all, as McNamara's "second mother," Malfa, explained, she had to pay attention to how language is used: "`We like to talk around the subject.... We like to use gestures.... When we talk, it's like we're dancing.'" This finely wrought, layered story makes clear that McNamara absorbed Malfa's advice and was forever changed by it. Whether writing about intimate relationships, poetry or the intricacies of village life, her approach is full of grace and equanimity. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Part I According to Our Nature It is a matter of transitions, you see; the changing, the becoming must be cared for closely. --Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony Something We Do Not Know                                          I WANTED to learn this: how I could tell a story and tell truth. These two virtues seemed, in my life, to be at odds with one another. I did not believe they ought to be at odds, however, and went looking for what else I needed to know.     But traveling has its own fascinations, and I loved them: the few small cases you fit your belongings into, the curious people and the knowing people who talk to you, the people who become your friends, cities and mountains, places where the air is so pure you can no longer be sure what you are seeing. From Paris, where my worldly education had begun, I went to Alaska. January 1976: a cold winter. I thought Alaska would be a snow-covered, silent land. * * * ANCHORAGE IS a random city with a literal name. During the beginning of this century it was assembled as a port and supply depot for the laying of the Alaska Railroad, on a site where Turnagain Arm meets Cook Inlet. The inlet was named for James Cook, the English explorer who sailed into the North Pacific late in the eighteenth century: his ships carried him as far as the Arm, where the mud flats and powerful bore tide of that shallow body turned them back toward deep water. I arrived in Anchorage during the last days of the trans-Alaska pipeline boom, just before the young middle-class professionals of my generation landed up there in number.     Anchorage liked to pretend it was a frontier city, but it was a raw town. Ice-eyed men conducted their business in the bars over strong liquor or strong coffee. Large, handsome women worked construction, waited on tables, danced naked in saloons not far from downtown. The notables who had a say in public affairs ended their day in the Signature Room of the Westward Hotel, where folk just in from the bush--some Native people were included by then--mixed with the hiking-booted crowd from town. Oil men met at the Petroleum Club or at the Captain Cook, the hotel built by Walter Hickel, a land developer who had become governor, then Nixon's Interior Secretary. Lawyers took the offices on K and L Streets that had prime views of the water and mountains.     The downtown was small. Not all the streets were paved. Now and then, moose ventured into people's backyards and even on to the Park Strip in the center of the city. From the window of the liquor store on Fourth and D, in the heart of the business district, a square red sign warned, with a wink and a leer: NO WHORES ALLOWED.     Two hundred fifty miles northwest rose Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Like a sentinel or guardian he stood above the Alaska Range. He was not always visible to the city. When he appeared in the brief, crystalline light, people turned toward him for a moment and said his name gladly to one another, as if they needed his presence to counter the vastness and indifference of the land, and were grateful for it.     In the obituaries the average age of the dead was less than thirty. Someone said to me, "If you live up here for more final five years you're almost sure to lose someone: to an airplane crash, or the elements."     I was young enough and curious enough to think I could live by my wits. Life in the north was immediate, intense; physical in a way I had never lived before. People seemed exuberant at being so far from the Lower Forty-Eight, as they called the nation. They moved with the robust, sly, immigrant sense that Alaskans, because of oil money and optimism and energy, had a chance to start America again, and make something of her the right way.     Though they were strongly suspicious of it, the people were not yet separate from their government. They argued and discussed fundamental questions in their public life, and it was true that those questions drew out the deep conflicts that existed among themselves--boomers vs. conservationists, urban settlers vs. the bush, fundamentalist Christians vs. gays, Alaskans vs. the Texas oil men, to begin with--but they never called these class differences, for they did not yet separate themselves by income and education, and most of them made their living with their hands. In their public meetings they talked about whether, and flow, to develop the state's renewable resources, because the oil and its money were not going to last forever; they knew that the oil consortium was important to the state's economy, though not many of them worried about the true extent of its power; they spoke in public, if uneasily, about the serious matter of land rights for Alaska Native people, who were not accepted as separate tribes; they argued about how the state and federal governments ought, or ought not, to supervise land and game management.     Anyone could have his say, and did. People called up the governor if they had something to tell him, and his wife might answer the phone; or they knocked on the door of the mansion in Juneau and talked to him directly. People knew one another by their first names. They didn't bend their necks to anyone, and took an American, self-defensive, pride in their individuality. The people who lived through a winter in Alaska, wino decided to stick it out, were all in it together; and a newcomer, a Cheechako, an Outsider, had a chance to prove himself.     Sociology is not a story. You had to spend time, more than you thought, to learn what really went into a story. At a conference on the matter of justice in the bush, the attorney general of the state warned that popular notions about life in the rural areas were pipe dreams; that most folks in Alaska were afraid of the violence in their towns.     I wrote that last item in my notebook the first year, when I lived in Anchorage. I was twenty-nine and from the East, had been educated in history and the liberal arts, had lived abroad, and was traveling alone. * * * HE WAS A MAN of the West, large-boned, watchful without appearing to be so, reticent about himself, eloquent about literature. He had worked both with his hands and with a cultivated mind. We talked about poetry. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and gave me a key to his excellent library. We became friends as, often, an older man and a younger woman do when they can open their minds, not their beds, to each other, and keep something unspoken between them.     He was not a drinking man, except for an occasional beer, and I drank hardly at all, but we often met in the Signature Room at the end of the day. He knew everyone but was careful whom he drank with, and he always picked up the bar tab. People who admitted him thought he was generous, a big man who offered hospitality and gave them room to move in; but they were only half-right about him.     We drank coffee and talked about books, or about Alaska. Alaska filled all conversations, it grounded every subject. "This isn't the real Alaska," he would say. "Out in the bush there's something we don't know. You ought to go out there."     The question the always circled back to was this: You've stopped running, this is the last frontier, there is no place left to go: how do you live here, with respect for the land? Human and natural ecology were his themes, but be was of several minds about their connection.     One afternoon he had to run an errand and asked if I wanted to go along. He strode up Fourth Avenue, crossed D Street, and stopped at an army and navy store; poked through the bins until he found what he needed, and paid for it; and, unexpectedly, turned uptown again, toward the pawnshops and the Montana Club and the other down-and-outer bars. I bad learned early nor to ask him questions, to wait and see what would happen and figure out the situation for myself.     Some drunks were propped against the buildings and some drunks staggered on the sidewalk. Most of them were Native men. Even drunk they were graceful, balanced by some inner sense of gravity, like sailors on the deck of a boat in a heavy swell. He walked among them, a man who knew how to move without giving offense, but who could rely on his strength. I assumed he knew what he was doing and walked beside him, self-contained.     I don't recall if we went into the Montana Club; but we stopped at a bar like it and sat down at a table. I believe he ordered a beer for each of us and paid for them. We were the only white people in the place. Steadily, I kept my eyes on him: I couldn't see much more than shapes in the smoky, dreary shadows. One or two men muttered something hostile; the other drinkers left us alone. He made an ordinary remark to me, quietly, as if we were conversing.     A young man, half-shot, slid into the next chair and said loudly: "Hey, man, good to see you!" They shook bands and exchanged news. The young man was a little bleary, a little excessive, a little too grateful to be recognized. The big man sounded pleased to see him again, though his face gave nothing, neither pleasure nor pity, away.     The big man had lived for a time in a Yup'ik village along the coast of Bristol Bay, where he land been a teacher and, during summers, a commercial fisherman. Afterward, he had taught Native students in college, and took it as his duty to remain a friend to them long after they left the program. The young man called him a friend, effusively. The big man bent his head, as if to avoid hearing himself praised. He introduced the young man to me, and we said we were glad to meet one another. The young man explained (twice) what he was doing in Anchorage. The big man listened to him and at the end wished him well at it. He paused; the young man paused. With a slight shift in tone, yet still sounding cordial, the big man said we bad to be going. The young man caught the tone instantly, closed down his effusiveness, and said good-bye. The big man left the change on the table.     As we walked toward his car, I said nothing. I bad never known, and haven't known since, a man who could compel others with such courtesy, yet so completely, as he had done. He had the strength to face what he saw, without flinching; he spent time and energy trying to alter it to what might be better. His was the benevolence of the man who was in a position to act, in measure, with respect; but he wouldn't drink with the young man in the bar, and he paid the bill; and so the issue between them was something else, something deeper, that had settled rote resentment and fury all but masked by the drinking and the polite exchange. The issue was power: who got to be the biggest man: but it was complicated, too, because of history, and there was always going to be an imbalance.     At that moment the social contract felt thin and tenuous. I could not tell what civility meant; and his steady, long-range gaze was disconcerting. A certain demeanor was required, a poker face, because be had just set me a test I thought was cruel to everyone caught in it, and I still had not passed it; and, half-annoyed but quite serious, I knew I had to pass it.     The people in the bars and on the streets seemed unhappy and far from home, and I did not know what, besides history, had brought them there. I didn't know about their lives or their homes. They bad families somewhere. At last, deliberately, I said something low key: "Hard life," perhaps. I said I had seen drunks before, in the coal-mining valley I came from, where the main street of one town had fifty-two bars on it.     He gave me a hard, comradely hug; I came up short of his shoulder. "You're a good man, McNamara," he said. Excerpted from Narrow Road to the Deep North by Katherine McNamara. Copyright © 2001 by Katherine McNamara. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.