FAIRBANKS — Although most of us live in urban centers with all the conveniences of Anytown, USA, Alaskans steadfastly cling to the belief that we are living in — as the state’s motto puts it — “The Last Frontier.” It’s a romantic image stemming from an American culture that has sought freedom first and foremost, and that has infused itself with the belief that it can best be found somewhere beyond the edge of town.
In her new book, “The Frontier Romance,” Judith Kleinfeld combines her knowledge as a professor of psychology with her experiences running UAF’s Northern Studies Program (which she founded) to explore how a handful of contemporary Alaskans are pursuing the frontier dream on their own terms, usually — but not always — to good ends.
Kleinfeld opens with a brief exploration of the role that the frontier has played in America’s collective mind. It’s been there for our entire history, but as she explains, it wasn’t fully embraced as a good thing until the 19th century when westward expansion truly erupted. Historically, frontiers were seen as places to defend, not boundaries to to be overcome.
Once they were breached, however, the restlessness that drove settlers across the continent became the metaphor for virtually all of America’s endeavors. Today those making strides in science, technology, venture capital, or even something as mundane as moviemaking, are touted as brave pioneers pushing the limits of the frontier. It’s embedded in our thought.
In considering the geographic frontier, Kleinfeld mixes Joseph Campbell’s famous idea of the “Hero’s Journey” with Frederick Jackson Turner’s conclusion that western expansion was the seminal force in America’s cultural development. The frontier is as much a myth belonging to literature as it is a reality.
“The frontier romance,” Kleinfeld explains “is a crucial psychological support in a culture that celebrates freedom as its central, signature value. The frontier romance creates psychological scaffolding that enables people to bear the burdens of freedom.” In other words, while freedom can be frightening and intimidating, if the proper mythology is attached to it, one can emerge from it strengthened and empowered.
The bulk of the book contains Kleinfeld’s interviews with people living the frontier romance. In her chapter on modern mountain men, Kleinfeld speaks with several trappers, providing a human face to an occupation more widely reviled in today’s urbanized culture than drug dealing. It’s neither an easy nor a lucrative life, but these men’s minds were fired at an early age by the tales of Jack London and movies like “Jeremiah Johnson” that fueled the myth of the wilderness loner. As adults they they choose to earn their living rather than live to earn.
In the course of these interviews, Kleinfeld gives these men a rare opportunity to have their voices heard. As their wilderness values come into focus, it becomes apparent that the stereotype foisted on them by their critics isn’t fair. And while it’s a mistake to think all trappers are ethical, it’s equally wrong to collectively demonize them. At their best they are one of the last vestiges of a crucial part of our history.
In another chapter, Kleinfeld focuses on women living in and around the village of Central. Many came following a man, but they aren’t helpless waifs living women’s traditional roles in the age of feminism. They needed to develop skills that most women today will never acquire, like shooting a charging bear and skinning it. Many also overcame personal demons by moving north. One woman left behind a history of abuse and drug addiction and found redemption in a community that values her for what she can contribute now, not what she may have done in the past. Another was a biker who answered a mail order bride advertisement and found precisely the peace and space she needed to come into her own.
A point repeatedly raised regarding life in remote regions is the code of honor that people have to obey. Honesty and cooperation are demanded in places where government services are virtually nonexistent. Those who violate this trust are quickly ostracized to the point of leaving.
Most who break the code do so in small ways, but the frontier myth sometimes attracts deranged people seeking to play out their pathologies. Kleinfeld discusses Michael Silka, whose murderous 1984 rampage in Manley Hot Springs left nine dead. He holed up in the wilderness when the authorities arrived and was gunned down in what could have been a scene from a classic western movie. He died living out the most violent element of the frontier myth.
The longest and most fascinating chapter concerns the Whitestone Farms community near Delta Junction. Here the frontier myth dovetails with biblical ideals in the creation of a cooperative venture that, in its own small way, echoes the settlement of Utah. The Whitestone residents have built a thriving community based on shared religious beliefs and collective efforts rather than self gratification. If retention can be seen as a sign of success, then the low number of people who leave indicates that something is being done well. Kleinfeld’s inclusion of this group reminds us that the frontier myth isn’t limited to individuals. It’s also a place of refuge for groups seeking to forge their own way amidst a civilization they find wanting.
Kleinfeld ranges widely in this thin but thought-provoking volume. If there is any complaint to be had, it’s that she easily could have included more, although respect for the privacy of her subjects undoubtedly drove part of her editing process. She writes well, treats her subjects respectfully, and provides stories showing how the Last Frontier still exists just beyond our backyards, even of most of us will never seriously venture there.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.