I’ve spent the past couple of weeks, aside from hiking and camping, in the Alaska Room at the Loussac Library, poring through old books about Alaska – specifically, dozens of books in the public domain, published before 1923.

The books run quite the gamut. Everyone who’d visited the territory in those days had stories to tell. It’s easy to imagine eager readers dreaming of Klondike gold and adventure, turning page after page to find out what this place was all about.

The same topics drew almost every author’s pen: burial customs of the native peoples, totem poles, the trials of the trail. Wild predictions are made: reindeer will haul cargo over mountain passes; the territory will become an agricultural mecca. Perceptions of Alaskan natives are mostly steeped in prejudice and misunderstanding.

Much of the prose is flowery and overwrought. Readers today can be thankful styles have changed. Some is funny: “Log cabins stuffed with moss should be wonderful in the tropics. I’m about frozen,” wrote Rockwell Kent. Some is brutally honest: “We had no time for amusement,” wrote William Standley. “Our routine was to work a great deal, sleep a little and eat when we had the stuff.”

Not much of it is great literature, but all of it illuminates our past.

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