Somewhere in the night it occurred to me that our mentors always ultimately leave us. This is more than anything a statement of simple mathematics. When you’re a baby writer and just starting to find your feet, a mentor is virtually by definition older than you. Death finds us all, and those with more years of residence on the planet tend to go first. At the time, it was 4:30 am and I was groggily trying to prop my eyes open with the first cup of coffee for the morning’s writing shift. There was no way not to dwell on the fact that one of my own mentors, Jim Rearden, had only the day before passed on at the age of ninety-one.
If you live in Alaska you almost certainly know his work, or at least know of it. Alaska’s Wolf Man, Castner’s Cutthroats, and Shadows on the Koyukuk are among his better known titles, but he wrote twenty-eight books over the span of sixty years at the desk. I was fortunate enough to know him as a family friend, and when my feet first found the writer’s path he was kind enough to invite me into his office in Homer (Jim was very much the kind of writer who worked from an office, as opposed to a studio) every now and again to listen to my ideas, and offer the occasional word of praise or encouragement.
Born in California, Jim was a WWII veteran who after the war went to college to study biology. That eventually led to a Master of Science degree from the University of Maine. Fresh out of graduate school in 1950, he moved to Fairbanks to serve as the founding professor of the wildlife biology department at the University of Alaska. Writing aside, every wolf, bear, and caribou biologist who matriculates from UAF owes Rearden an intellectual debt. This was before statehood, when Fairbanks was still a hamlet of dry log cabins, and “College” was still a separate town. The local milieu of crusty trappers, prospectors, missionaries, and Native Alaskans became his muse.
Rearden quit UAF and moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1955, not long after the completion of the Sterling Highway. He’d always wanted to be a full-time writer, that dream that so many of us cherish despite its elusiveness, though in the middle twentieth century such a thing was much more possible. And Jim had an ace up his sleeve—he personally knew many old-time sourdoughs who had spent their youth driving dog teams, panning gold, and leading strings of packhorses across hundreds of miles of wilderness. Many of these old-timers loved to talk about their adventures, and more importantly, the public loved to read about them.
He started recording interviews with these folks, transcribing them, and turning them into magazine stories. He usually wrote in first person, using the direct words of his interviewee. Along the way he developed a singular talent for utterly becoming the characters he was writing about. Having done a lot of magazine and newspaper work myself, I can say from experience that it can be a herculean task to move a narrative along using only the words spoken by someone else. But Jim did this repeatedly, for years, both in magazine and book-length pieces.
Shadows on the Koyukuk, which he wrote with Koyukon Athabascan elder Sidney Huntington, to this day remains my favorite book about Alaska. In fact, it’s one of my all-time favorite books on any subject. The book is comprised of Sidney Huntington’s words, but it was Jim who put them on the page in a way that makes them so wonderfully readable. The reader in me loves Huntington’s story, but the writer in me pays homage to Jim Rearden every single time I read it, which seems to be about once every five years or so. I was sixteen when the book was released, and, like a lot of teenagers, I was going through a difficult time. It was something new under the sun for me to be an Alaska kid reading a book about someone who had grown up here and chosen to stay, but Shadows also has a palpable existential angle that comes from Huntington’s difficult childhood and the struggle he faced as a mixed-blood individual making a life between two worlds. Jim’s prose in Shadows was the first thing that ever clued me in to the idea that this world of dog teams, paddlewheel steamboats, moosehide moccasins and birchbark canoes could be used as a window through which to glimpse something much larger and more universally human. And it’s something I see again and again in his work.
Eventually, Jim moved from the trenches of freelancing to the swivel chair behind the editorial desk. He was for many years the Outdoors Editor of Alaska magazine, back when it was an actual periodical and not just a glorified tourist brochure. At the same time he also served as the Field Editor for Outdoor Life. By the time I came along in the mid 2000s, he’d been out of the magazine business for years, but his various bits of advice to me (always good-natured, if a bit crusty) helped me immeasurably in dealing with editors as a freelancer.
But Jim was more than just a scrivener of hunting, fishing, and Alaskana tales. I can recall sitting in his office once when he mentioned that lately he’d taken to writing science fiction, of all things. This was maybe 2008, I think. Spaceships and laser guns seemed a stretch for someone like Jim in my junior writer’s mind, but then, as he himself told me, why the hell not write some sci-fi? To this day I remember that conversation every time I tackle a writing project outside my usual beat.
His prose, to be fair, was not without its issues. As good as his first-person writing was, his third person voice in particular could occasionally veer into the territory of hokey Jeremiah Johnson-type storylines. Then again, I’ve been known to move through that same country myself. Yet his time as a hard-nosed magazine editor is evident in the economy of his words, his commitment to the facts of any given issue, and his understanding of what makes a great story.
At the end of the day, what always stands out in my mind about Jim Rearden is that for him, it was the words on the page that mattered, and nothing else. He never had an agent, and never, to my knowledge, chased big contracts from the New York houses. He didn’t give a damn about awards, though he did win a couple. He was, ultimately, a writer’s writer, an extremely talented wordsmith, journalist and historian, and a very humble man. He was generally overlooked by Alaska’s literary folks, but this never seemed to bother him in the least.
He would hate it that I’m lavishing such praise on him, but it cannot be helped. I was in awe of him. I still am, in fact. So rest in peace, Jim Rearden. May your pen always be full and the muse ever at your ear.
Kris Farmen is a novelist, historian and freelance journalist who splits his time between Anchorage and Homer. His books include Turn Again, Weathered Edge, and The Devil’s Share. His latest novel, Blue Ticket, is available from VPD House.