Guestblogger Nancy Lord on “Ice Palace”

Rereading Ice Palace: Old Myths and New Context
by Nancy Lord

When I first arrived in Alaska in the early 1970s, I eagerly read everything I could about my new home. That meant that I read Jack London, Rex Beach, homesteader accounts, and Edna Ferber’s novel Ice Palace, published in 1958 and credited with helping Alaska gain statehood.

Now that we’re observing (celebrating?) Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood, I thought it time to take another look at Ice Palace. I remembered almost nothing from my first reading and now, with my own decades of being both an Alaskan and a writer, I wondered: Was it any good? Had Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York novelist, done a fair job of showing Alaska to the rest of America? Fifty years later, what might this book tell us about our perceived or real past? Mostly I thought to approach my reading as historical inquiry—let’s see how our state was presented to the world back then and how that picture compares to the identity we assume today.

Should you have the same curiosity, let me say—don’t bother running down to your library for this one. I muddled through—I’m not one to give up on any book, once started—but I will say that rereading Ice Palace was a painful experience. I suppose reading tastes were different in 1958 and perhaps readers were interested enough in Alaska to submit themselves to anything purporting to tell of that distant land, but—gag! The writing is simply awful, the story dull and propagandistic, and the characters wooden and symbolic instead of resembling anyone who might actually have lived.

And then, there are all the stupid factual errors of someone who, despite having made several research trips to Alaska, had little comprehension of what she saw and heard. (Because Alaska’s all permafrost, you can land a plane anywhere year-round, and whales have “flutes.”) The usual old myths of perpetual ice and cold, rugged (Caucasian) individuals, hearty Eskimos, twenty men to every woman, etc. are all on exhibit; Alaska’s mountains are higher, its temperatures colder, its snow deeper, and Alaskans might live long and healthy lives “unless you’re shot, or your plane cracks up on you, or a bear sees you first.” Sexual and racial stereotypes are embarrassingly, disgustingly, prevalent.

Here’s the basic plotline. Christine Storm, a lovely young thing, is torn between her two grandfathers, one aligned with the Outside cannery interests and one who loves Alaska for its beauty and thinks it’s being exploited unfairly. The one grandfather is trying to marry her off to the son of a Seattle magnate, while the girl herself is attracted to a part-Eskimo bush pilot. Who will win this struggle? It’s clear from the start that Christine is a symbol for Alaska, just as the Ice Palace (a tall building that includes residences and shops, much like Whittier’s Begich Tower) also stands in for Alaska as an attractive but contradiction-filled thing.

The most interesting part of my rereading lay not in finding how culturally dated and badly written the book was, but in discovering an unexpected resonance. Christine is a perky young woman dressed in a stylish parka, who was born in a blizzard inside a gutted caribou and whose father was scalped by a bear. She’s so totally committed to Alaska (and provincial) that she thinks that Alaska is the only place worth living in and loving, and she frequently launches into simplistic speeches about how great Alaska is and how “we don’t get the benefits of our own resources.” She flies a plane, mushes dogs, makes sourdough pancakes, and eats moose. She is undereducated and overconfident, not to mention doted upon and spoiled by the old men and a nursemaid/companion.
Early on, she’s described as “our Miss Alaska, born and bred.” Later, we’re told that she’s planning to become Alaska’s governor in another twenty years. And she goes for the part-Eskimo (“olive-brown” and handsome) bush pilot. (Oh, did I give away the ending?) She observes that Russia is right next door. Hmm. The parallels, here in 2008, are eerie. I could almost wish Edna Ferber back from the grave to take a look at Alaska today and our own perky and nonfictional representation of the state she (Ferber) helped shape (however mythically) in American minds.

1 thought on “Guestblogger Nancy Lord on “Ice Palace””

  1. Kelly O'Neal Thompson

    ROFL. Unbelievable. Nancy has managed to make me want to read this reportedly godawful book just for the laughs it can provide with the hilarious parallel she points out – between the heroine and a certain “cheeky” Alaskan, of whom we here in the “Great Land” are familiar and recognize instantly. Talk about stereotype and bull – I mean, moose-poop! Thanks for the chuckle.

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