Sun. May 26th, 2024

The Bells of Chugiak

By Subversify Staff Apr 20, 2022
The Bells of Chugiak

The old-timers advised the young men taking advantage of the Homestead Act to settle in Alaska, “marry first and bring your wives with you. There ain’t but one woman for every ten men.”

The WWII veterans took the advice seriously. Some of the new wives were mail-order brides, some arranged marriages. Some were whirlwind affairs that didn’t sober up until they had reached the underdeveloped territory. These women had one thing in common. Hardened by the Great Depression, filling in for the workforce while the men were at war, they were ladies who knew their own minds.

The men built the foundations of their communities, the women built the society. Each time there was an emergency, the women rallied first, responding to the immediate needs while their husbands were at their jobs.

Millie is a gregarious woman, so gregarious people wanted her to like them because if she didn’t, there must be something terribly wrong with them. Yet Millie, for all her friendliness, stands off a claim-jumper alone.

Andrea has jumped out of one marriage and contemplates another but relishes her northland freedom. Handy Andy, as she was called, is a jane of all trades. If she isn’t the ideal housewife, she is someone you can lean on and makes a spectacular best friend.

It was hard to imagine mousy Doreen as a strong pioneer woman. Tiny, with a high-pitched, nervous laugh, her best assets seem to be dancing and ice-skating. She shows what she’s made of when her husband goes missing on a solitary hunting trip.

Beth has a drinking problem, and her problem gets her in trouble. It also helps her realize what the community is lacking – a spiritual guide to keep them from floundering.

They are the most vulnerable in the winter, when dark days, darker nights, and loneliness plague them. They gather at the Wolf Creek Trading Post and the comfort of the proprietor, Solace Grant, to discuss their plight. When it’s decided they need a pastor, the Wolf Creek women are determined to have one by any means possible. They ring out like bells and their summoning brings together the best of all possible worlds.

When I first read “The Bells of Chugiak”, I thought of it as a splice of life book covering Historical Alaska – a part of American heritage that is unfortunately forgotten by the mainstream.

To say that most Americans don’t understand Alaskan culture is a criminal understatement. We just barely understand the culture of modern Alaska – and always from the perspective of outsiders. We have books written by guests of Alaska who thought their travels to Anchorage were somehow the most interesting thing about rural living.

But we know nothing about Alaska’s past.

We assume that because it was so close in proximity to the U.S., Alaskan culture during the 1940s must have been more or less like the lower 48’s experience.

But to assume so is to miss an entire universe of characters, terrain, and evolving social climate that is distinctly Alaskan and practically a foreign country to 1940s mainstream America.

Thankfully, Karla Fetrow’s novel – a blend of nonfiction writings, passed-down stories, family histories, and historical feminist fiction – gives us something more than a glimpse of the Alaskan lifestyle and the people who shaped the modern era.

The book recreates the Alaskan voice authentically, straight from the minds of the pioneers who were there, and too busy making history to write about their daily exploits. But as the reader, you are invited in with warm hugs to immerse yourself in their stories – many very personal, many tragic, and many too funny for words.

One can only imagine how dumbed down an Alaskan novel written from the lower 48 might read – with outsider characters or self-absorbed baby genius protagonists with jaded POVs taking for granted everything special about their ice-capped world.

Thankfully the writer stays clear of all cliches, presumptions, and pandering to the masses. She embodies each of the characters as fiercely as Tennessee Williams might, with a playwright’s voice and a captivating narrative that bonds with nature as a character, and virtually as an omnipresent god.

Through the perspectives of five women, Millie, Andrea, Doreen, Beth, and Solace, we meet the unsung female heroes of a Post WWII era. Their husbands built the structures, but the women built the community and the society.

It’s intelligent feminist literature that is all too rare today. We’re not just reminiscing about how tough and strong historical figures were when fighting the forces of evil. We’re meeting historical figures face to face, seeing how they cooperated amid personality differences. We’re seeing how they built families and kept each other strong in the worst of times, but mostly in the best of times.

For historical fiction, it’s unusual to read a story with low-intensity conflict like The Bells of Chugiak. It’s too easy to write about people killing other people. It’s much more difficult to write well about people getting along. People overcoming their petty issues for the greater good of the community they are creating for the future.

Maybe it’s an art that we have forgotten as a culture engorged with shocking images, angry voices, and the never-ending scroll of feeling spikes.

I was almost worried the end of the book was going to be anticlimactic and wondered, for a moment, if the writer was really going to troll us with a barbecue cookout for the last few pages.

But no…little did I realize at the time, it was all building up to wonderful poetic statement that brings all five parts of the book together beautifully.

You simply have to read the book to the very end to get the point.

This is a writer that truly loved the time, loved the people, knew the people, and remembered their voices so crisply. The whole book was an act of love, and a testament to old “reality” that was not as maddening or self-destructive as the new hyperreality we’ve created in the 21st century.

The second time I read the book I picked up on something a little more subtle. This is a book about repairing society – not just building it.

The men who came to pioneer and build in Alaska were war veterans. We can only imagine the horrors they saw, as one part of society crumbled. But the book avoids that, in favor of showing how they rebuilt society as a part of their spiritual healing process.

The women built the society that re-learned how to nurture, how to forgive, and how to love people again, in a world where hate destroyed the world.

In the days before therapy was a real option, these were people that found ways to cope, and found ways to heal – that is, by guiding others. By becoming a more close-knit community that watched over each other.

It’s everything glorious about the Greatest Generation and their resilience, and the story embodies their pioneer spirit like no other historical book I’ve ever read.

We may never measure up to the lives of our grandparents because they had no choice but to change the world for the betterment of humanity. They had to show us how it could be done. They saw their children and saw something worth living for.

The warm embrace coming from a community of strangers is at the heart of the story. To readers like me, who have never found a community to belong to, it may feel foreign indeed.

It may be a little triggering too. Fleeing from today’s disconnected world, and seeking refuge in a book about how close we all used to be, maybe the opposite of inspirational.

But it’s a reminder to take seriously. Rebuilding what has been broken is a responsibility, a gift, and a small miracle. It makes you believe in humanity again, one brick at a time.

As a historian, Karla Fetrow is unparalleled in her eye to detail and in her child-like imagination. But as a humanitarian and teacher, she has something important to say.

Read The Bells of Chugiak as soon as possible and give her a Nobel Prize.

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