Anyone who has lost a weekend pursuing their heritage through the waggling leaves of Ancestry.com understands the dynamic driving C.B. Bernard's Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now (Lyons Press, 275 pages, $18.95). The book follows Bernard through an Alaskan adventure begun on a whim in his native Massachusetts, but shaped by the discovery that his great uncle Joe Bernard, a notable Arctic explorer, is buried within sight of his new apartment. This bit of kismet carries us a long way—though not as far as Bernard intends.
Chasing Alaska juxtaposes snippets of Uncle Joe's 1,000-plus-page journal with prose from Bernard, now a Portlander, who moves to Sitka to work as a newspaper reporter. As Nephew explains, his rainy Alaska looks very little like the white wasteland where Uncle spent 10 long winters eating adorable Arctic mammals as he waited for a month of melt when he could push his small but sturdy boat, Teddy Bear, through the bays along the Beaufort Sea.
Both vagabond Bernards are Alaskans of their era. Uncle lives off trapped and shot game while trading for one of the world's greatest collections of Eskimo artifacts; Nephew ponders the challenges of rural economies and the disappearance of true wilderness.
At his worst, Bernard is a preachy crank, complaining about cruise tourists ("they spend a week on the water but never get wet") or a Tlingit boy who asks his dad if that fishing boat was on Deadliest Catch ("it breaks my heart, an Alaskan Native so impressed by a small-screen version of his homeland"). At his best, he composes elegant snapshots of contemporary life in Alaska, as when following a state trooper investigating a rape, and giving a nuanced take on the white-trash town that launched Sarah Palin.
What's missing, though, is an overarching conflict to tie it all together. In the final pages, the best chance emerges: Uncle Joe's rivalry with the better-known explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, which turned bitter over a lost group of Canadian colonists. Bernard's cousins have a theory about this, he tells us, that could be proved using a letter that may be buried beneath the ice. Alas, it's "too long and complex to nutshell." Toward the end, we see correspondence in which Uncle Joe brushed aside an editor's request to weave a narrative into his manuscript, which he felt may have compromised a more complex truth. It seems Nephew did the same. Maybe it's in the genes.
GO: C.B. Bernard will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, May 13. 7:30 pm. Free.