After living almost my entire school career in the Alaskan bush, I went to Ketchikan--the nearest city--for my senior year in high school.
The culture clash was immediate and overwhelming. I felt like an alien observer taking notes on the natives of this strange new world. One of the strangest things I had to adapt to was the way my fellow students became herds trained to respond to a ringing bell, like hundreds of Pavlovian dogs.
When a bell rang they all stood up and rushed down the halls to another room, until another bell rang and they did it again. All day long, every day without question or thought of refusal. Out in the bush there were no bells...and the kids were anything but unquestioningly obedient. I'm sure the teachers in the bush school I attended thought that we were a pack of feral wolves rather than Pavlovian dogs. (One child, who shall remain nameless, bit a teacher in the butt. When remonstrated with and told that acting like an animal wasn't acceptable schooltime behavior, she'd lock herself in the bathroom and howl...and alternate with yelling: I AM AN ANIMAL!)
In Ketchikan I spent a lot of time looking out classroom windows aware that Alaska, my Alaska, was tantalizingly close, but seemingly unreachable. I felt I had nothing in common with these young adults who, it seemed, could have been living in any city in the nation, knowing nothing, and caring nothing, about the wilderness.
If I'd only known....
Fast forward 26 years, I'm once again living in the bush, and for the first time I have access to the Internet. (July of this year.) Being a voracious reader, I almost hyperventilate with all of Amazon, and it's Kindle store in particular, laid out like an endless smorgasbord in front of me. Ahhh. Bliss.
One of the first things I type in is "Humorous Alaskan Mysteries." Surely there has to be some out there? Of course, odds are good the books will be pale shadows of the real Alaska written by authors drawn to the state but entirely unfamiliar with it and the extreme nature of the land and the people who live in it. But who knows, I thought. I might get lucky.
Up popped several books, the most eyecatching "Mink Island" by Brent Purvis.
Brent Purvis. I knew that name. Was he a celebrity, someone who played an AI on a famous sci-fi show...? No, that was Brent Spiner. Who was Brent Purvis? In what context did I know his name....wait a minute. Didn't I go to school with him?
With a few amazingly effortless motions and clicks I found Brent Purvis's website and used the contact option to ask him if he'd gone to Kayhi (Ketchikan High School) in the late 80s.
He responded quickly--yes, he had. In fact, he'd graduated with my sister, Megan.
Hmmm, I thought. This might be good. After all, he'd grown up in Alaska. But when I thought about how those high school kids had seemed only interested in their after school jobs, their shopping trips Down South to the Lower 48, who was dating who, their new car....I mean, how much could Brent Purvis have picked up on what Alaska was really about?
Still, there was no way I was going to resist reading his book.
MINK ISLAND by Brent Purvis
It didn't take me long as I read to realize that he got the place right....
"All supplies that sustain normal life on Prince of Wales Island are brought in by floatplane or barge. Mail and special order items are delivered once every weekday by a floatplane that travels to and from Ketchkan. All other supplies, including groceries that are sold in Craig's lone store are shipped in on [the barge line]. Large, flat barges are stacked high with shipping containers and pulled by tugboat all over Southeast Alaska and up and down the Inside Passage from Seattle. Assuming weather or mechanical failure does't delay shipment, the barge docks down on the north side of Craig every Wednesday morning. Containers are unloaded and supplies are slowly dispersed to various entities throughout the island. This process takes the better part of a day, and residents find it fairly common to not see fresh supplies actually hit the shelves of stores until late Thursday morning.
"As Jim was hungry for breakfast foods on a Wednesday, he was a little miffed to see that Craig Market had actually run out of milk. What store runs out of milk?"
....And he got the people right:
"The sudden reality hit Jim. There was a man in a fifteen-foot aluminum skiff powering a massive guitar amplifier with a portable generator, floating in the bay, rocking out at three o'clock in the morning. The guitarist finished a solo which included furious shredding and went into a lick that Jim recognized from an old Pink Floyd song.
"'Hey, that's from The Wall album. Good tune,' Jim said. The old man [who'd called in the complaint] did not seem amused by the fact that the trooper recognized the guitar riff.
"....The old man looked over to the trooper and asked, 'Can we shoot him?'"
I was sold. And the book just got better and better, and by that I mean, more extreme. That's the key to capturing Alaska for Real. It's a lot like when I was learning Russian. I was told to exaggerate my accent. And when I thought I sounded like an embarrassing caricature, then I was on the verge of capturing an authentic Russian accent. Writing about Southeast Alaska and its denizens is very similar. When you think you're waaaay over the top, and have passed ludicrous and finally gone to plaid (my younger brothers tortured me with incessant Spaceballs references) only then are you close to speaking a language Alaskans are at home with.
Brent Purvis had the accent down pat.
To my delight, after I contacted him again to rave about the book, he told me he was only weeks away from publishing the sequel, TSUNAMI WARNING. I wondered how on earth I'd be able to wait for it. My good fortune held, though, and Brent asked me if I'd be willing to give the manuscript a final edit. I pumped my fist and said, Let me a it. And I found that TSUNAMI WARNING was at least, if not more, hilariously accurate in capturing the spirit of an isolated Southeast Alaskan community than MINK ISLAND.
I can't help but feel sorry I didn't get to know Brent in high school, though I do remember him vaguely as the class cut up, making everyone laugh. If I'd known he'd spent summers out in the bush on fishing trips to Prince of Wales Island, just across the strait from where I'd grown up, I probably would have gotten through the homesickness and culture clash much better. Here was someone who knew what it meant to be a real Alaskan...anything but Pavlovian.
For my complete review of both books, go to Amazon and see the reviews under Brent Purvis' s books, MINK ISLAND and TSUNAMI WARNING by DOA.
Photos: Top, looking across Clarence Strait toward a tiny portion of Prince of Wales Island's vast bulk. Brent's books are set in a town on the west side of this island. Bottom, Brent (right) fooling around with a friend in our high school yearbook, 1989.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)