by Jim Misko
Author of For What He Could Become
For What He Could Become
I’m too young for World War II, too white and well off to join the native street life, and I’ve never stepped on the back of an Iditarod dog sled, either coming or going. Never lived in a native village in the bush of Alaska or walked ninety miles through the wilderness.
But-I know about them.
When my novel required me to be able to present the difficulties, dangers, and human frustrations of the protagonist who did know these things I had to find out what he went through and how he felt and thought and acted in these circumstances.
Books-and doing a portion of each of these, got me through.
I’ve never hunted bear, but I have hunted for sixty years, so hunting the bear was just one step from where I had been. I have seen hundreds of bears while hunting in Alaska, black and brown, but never had the desire to shoot one. You won’t talk to many Alaska bear hunters before you hear about a grizzly that caught and killed a black bear and ate it right there.
They also kill and eat smaller brown bears. The grizzly bear is at the top of the food chain until you introduce mankind with a .300 Winchester rifle.
Then, when my protagonist decided to walk ninety miles on a trail along the Chandalar River from Arctic Village to Venetie I fell back on two hikes I have made. One was around and around a municipal track for twenty-four hours for the Walk for Life where I walked fifty-one miles. Another was to hike Resurrection Pass Trail which is either thirty-eight or forty-two miles, depending on which sign you believe, on the longest day of the year-straight through-without camping-in twenty hours. The blisters, dehydration, exhaustion, sour taste of food and water, dullness, and the experience of night travel all come to play in those. Now I’ll admit, forty-two miles isn’t ninety, and one day isn’t four or five days, but you can extrapolate from that and get to the thoughts, feelings, and conditions of someone who did it.
The book shelves in my library/den contain about eighty books on WWII, including Time/Life photo books which depict the photographer’s detail of actions in dreary weather, snow cover, and the weariness of the soldiers. I read six books about the Battle of the Bulge, the Golden Lions Division, and the end of the war in Europe. I also contacted a researcher who sent me details of the POW camps on the Rhine River, and the kind of trees (poplars and willows) that would have been blooming on May 7th, 1945 at the end of the war in Europe.
About fifteen years before I wrote the book I was a passenger in a small plane that landed at Arctic Village. The Chandalar River, the village setting, and the remoteness stayed in my mind after we dropped off a young man who was to meet one of his school teachers and kayak down the river. There is a giant file cabinet in a writer’s mind that holds things like the smell of the dust on the road into town, the hordes of mosquitoes, the easy laughter and humor of the resident natives, the one store and the squeak of the screen door spring. These mental scenes were added to, cut up, and reassembled into the village life of my protagonist.
Most of the questions from readers come from the native street life and the Iditarod. Did I participate in each of these? No. I didn’t and don’t want to either. But I did watch and follow their actions from my car and on foot.
I have been accosted many times on the street by natives, and others, under the influence of alcohol. Even followed an intrepid attorney down a dark stairway into the bowels of the Gospel Mission looking for a certain fellow, a scene that slammed itself onto my memory for all time. And over the course of my lifetime I have watched people whose lives have been influenced by alcohol. Have seen their constant struggle to get it, hide it, deny it, and then try to clean up and either win or lose.
Usually it’s AA that brings them back to society. They provide the common knowledge, the history of addiction, and the comradeship of help to get out. There are a few who simply turn their back on it or get in places where alcohol is not available or are lifted out by love of their fellow man and/or a woman. Such is my protagonist, Bill Williams, the son of an Irish immigrant and a native woman.
When I wrote about the dog sled training and racing and then the Iditarod, I pulled scenes and facts out of my head from thirty years of watching dog sled races in Alaska; read a dozen books about raising dogs, training dogs, running dogs, and various races that featured techniques learned that favored the winners.
Then, I had the wonderful experience of talking to the 1978 Iditarod Winner, Dick Mackey, who has written a book, ONE SECOND TO GLORY, that details his close win in that race. He helped me by phone through out the race segment and when I was finished, read the race portion for any errors I had made. If any remain, they are all my fault.
I also got to spend a number of hours with Norman Vaughan, who was in his mid-nineties by that time. He had previously mushed dogs in Antarctica for Admiral Byrd, in Greenland, on the Iditarod trail and in the Presidential Inaugural parade. He loved to talk about dog racing and volunteered to read my book but time caught up with him in the reading department and he never got around to it. He died this year having lived 100 years and five days.
There are a lot of ways to write about something you know nothing about, but I think you’ll find the above methods worked for me.
Purchase Jim’s book at Amazon For What He Could Become
The Iditarod is barbaric. For the facts: http://www.helpsleddogs.org