By David James
n the opening of the short story “Mannik and the Cranes,” George Harbeson Jr., evokes the timelessness of northwestern Alaska on a fall morning, as the land and its people stagger into the oncoming winter, and the birds prepare to depart.
“The sun climbed over the eastern horizon, breaking loose from the low hills. Mannik saw the white coating of frost turn clear and wet on the full heads of seed cresting the dying grass. Soon the cries of tatirgaq, the sandhill crane, would be wavering across the morning sky, weaving their musical coda into the autumnal air currents. Then he would strain to catch their direction. Concentrating on each vibrating call as it hung in the morning air, he would listen for that beginning whisper of wings leading to a beating rush as they swept overhead. Those wings would be reaching south now, pushing the Arctic behind in deep powerful strokes.”
It’s the sort of prose you’d expect from a self-admitted bird watcher, and it expresses the feeling of endless land and an eternal migratory pattern wonderfully.
“Mannik and the Cranes” is the strongest story in Harbeson’s collection of short fiction, “Shadowed Times.” It tells of an Inuit man in late middle age who becomes injured while out hunting birds. Retreating into a nearby cabin to wait for the arrival of others, he reflects on his life, which has seen the modern world slowly but irresistibly intrude on an ancient culture. It aligns itself well with the book’s subtitle, “Alaska Stories of Another Age.”
Harbeson came to Alaska as a child in 1954, attended school in Wasilla at a time when Wasilla could still be accurately called a small town, received degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in English and education, and an MFA from the Anchorage campus in creative writing. He spent many years teaching in village schools and has worked as a jack-of-all-trades as well. His roots in the state are deep, and the stories in this slightly uneven but mostly quite good collection often harken back to an Alaska that’s slipped away in the age of the internet.
The early stories in “Shadowed Times” are drawn from his teaching experience, and reflect the deep difficulties and small rewards that confront white teachers in rural communities where nearly all the residents are Natives, and the cultural gap has to be forded by guess work and the willingness to ignore the rules imposed by distant authorities.
These stories are the most absorbing in the collection. Harbeson conveys the sense of claustrophobia that can close in on teachers surrounded by uninhabited land on all sides, yet physically and socially contained within a small and foreign environment. He explores the efforts of teachers to help students struggling with substance abuse, family difficulties, uncertain futures and suicidal behavior choices. And in one story, “Garret’s Igaaq,” he presents a teacher who has himself succumbed to the temptations of alcohol and madness.
The stories have their share of tragedy, but also triumph. In “Herbie Sinks a Three Pointer,” a young man beset by learning disorders gets his chance to play basketball for the village team. How he sinks that three pointer can’t be told here without giving the tale away, but the story shows how a small community can come together in support of one of its weakest members, and help that person find strength.
The second half of the book wanders afield. “Triad” brings readers along for a boy’s first moose kill. Set in the Chugach foothills, Harbeson again captures a landscape in fall, but here he also confronts the brutality of killing such a large and powerful animal. It’s not a judgmental examination, just an honest one.
In “The Last of the Frost,” a grown man returns to Alaska from Outside to collect his father’s ashes and shut down the homestead he grew up on. The land and the house bring back memories, while the confused emotions of dealing with a parent’s death — and the mess of paperwork entailed — will be familiar to anyone who has crossed that bridge.
Less successful is “Roadmaster Alley.” Set in the early 1970s, it tells of two recent college graduates leaving Anchorage for Fairbanks. They stop in a remote roadside watering hole and trouble ensues. Harbeson captures the rising tensions that lead to a barroom brawl with perfect timing. Elsewhere, however, the story is dragged down by excess verbosity. When Harbeson places the two protagonists on the road, he turns altogether too much Jack Kerouac, and the clumsiness shows:
“Both of us trying to outrun the gathering thunder from Southeast Asia and the lowdown draft number blues in his ‘49 Buick Roadmaster Eight. A cream-colored rusting high mileage shark of a car with a dirty white canvas top and a chrome grimace sneering from its front grille — a Fireball in-line eight cylinder two-speed Dynaflow alarm on a rising Saturday morning.”
It’s a bit much, and a reminder of why many Kerouac books, and also movies like “Easy Rider,” now seem hopelessly dated.
Fortunately, Harbeson dials it back afterward. The collection’s other standout story comes in the end, and is set in small town Vermont, not Alaska. Again set decades in the past, it follows two boys as they collect scrap metal for sale, read MAD Magazine, navigate the difficulties wrought by other children struggling with their own demons, and are find themselves face-to-face with one of those dark secrets that seemingly safe small towns harbor. And then they return to an altered but still recognizable normalcy. It’s a remarkably well-crafted story, and like “Mannik and the Cranes,” it’s told with restraint. Harbeson is at his best when he takes this simpler approach.
Overall, “Shadowed Times” is a worthy endeavor. The stories were written over several decades, and several deservedly won awards. Altogether they bring back an Alaska and an America that’s fast fading from memory. It was a different time, but hardly simple.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at email@example.com.
“Shadowed Times: Alaska Stories of Another Age”
By George Harbeson, Jr.