" The Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska Statehood"
Author: Eric Gislason
Edna Ferber in Kotzebue, Alaska, 1957. Ms. Ferber made five different research trips to Alaska during the five-year process of writing Ice Palace. Her findings richly inform this account of Alaska's struggles.
Edna Ferber (1885-1968) wrote numerous short stories, plays (some with George S. Kaufman), and novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big, Showboat, Cimarron, and Giant. Ice Palace (1958) is her best-selling fictional account of Alaska's quest for statehood: it is alternately a fascinating travelogue, a popular history of Seward's folly, and convincing propaganda for Alaska's admission as the 49th state. A reviewer for the Chicago Sunday Tribune called it "practically a love letter in fiction form to Alaska," a "wham dandy of a story" which might even be the "Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska statehood." Ms. Ferber liked to take a stand in her fiction: her previous novel, Giant (1953), had narrowed the eyes of Texans in anger, prompting one Houston critic to suggest ominously that if Ms. Ferber were ever to set foot in the Lone Star state again, she should be met with a "necktie party" (rather than the traditional autograph affair). Alaska, by contrast, gets an extremely affectionate treatment. Ferber makes frequent plugs for statehood, at times sounding like a local booster for the territorial Chamber of commerce. And Ice Palace includes at least one parting shot at Texas: one character exclaims "Alaska is two times the size of that little bitty Texas they're always yawping about." A political cartoonist caught the spirit of Texas' apprehension:
Ferber--a sentimental and not usually profound writer--provides vivid representations of human lives, full of detail and a good deal of practical and psychological knowledge. Here is her version of how she got started writing Ice Palace:
Alaska, as a part of the United States, didn't particularly interest me. I was as ignorant of it as were (and are) most of the millions of citizens of my country. I knew a few bare facts only; Alaska was a Territory of the United States; it was vast enough to be termed, without too much exaggeration, a sixth continent; it had been bought from Russia for seven million dollars in 1867 over the protest of most of the citizens of this country who called the transaction Seward's Folly because the purchase had been advised by Secretary of State Seward. Something over seven million had been paid to Russia for this gigantic territory. Vaguely, it was known that Eskimos lived there and that in the 1890's gold had been discovered.1
These few facts, Ferber maintained, were about all the average U. S. citizen knew about Alaska. The dramatic struggle for statehood in the 1950s, however, began to penetrate the emotions of millions "who never had set foot in Alaska, had thought little if anything about it, and who didn't really know where it was, exactly." 2
While working on Ice Palace, Ferber kept in close touch with Ernest Gruening, then Senator-elect of the Alaska Statehood Delegation. He provided Ferber an insider's perspective on Alaska's political struggles and his voice resonates in the voices of the novel's pro-statehood characters--Bridie Ballantyne and Thor and Christine Storm. When Alaska became the 49th state, Gruening wrote to Ferber that statehood was a "wonderful sensation," and that Ice Palace had contributed substantially" to the victory:
In the last few weeks just about everybody appears to have read it. Whenever people talked about Alaska--as scores did, in the closing hours of the fight--they talked about Ice Palace, and they had gotten the message. How wonderful that you synchronized it just the way you did!3
Ferber's timing was indeed fortuitous. Alaskans were grateful, too. The Anchorage Daily Times acknowledged that "Miss Ferber has rendered a great service to Alaska through her newest novel," adding that the book "contains a tremendous boost for the good qualities of Alaskans and their plea for self-government as a full-fledged member of the union of states."
Ice Palace is a vigorous saga set in the mountains and frontier seaports of contemporary Alaska. Alaska is depicted as a great natural treasury, chock-full of "fish and fur and oil and metals and timber," a place brimming with life. The book begins with a contemporary scene:
Every third woman you passed on Gold Street in Baranof was young, pretty, and pregnant. The men, too, were young, virile, and pregnant with purpose. Each, making his or her way along the bustling business street, seemed actually to bounce with youth and vitality.4
Ferber also has an eye for the earlier generations of Alaskans, however:
Only an occasional sourdough relic dating back to the gold-rush days of fifty years ago, wattled and wary as a turkey cock, weaving his precarious way in and out of the frisky motor traffic, gave the humming town a piquant touch of anachronism.5
The focal point of Ferber's novel is the lovely teenager Christine Storm, who was born in the slit-open carcass of a caribou in the middle of a snowstorm deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Her mother, the daughter of Czar Kennedy and a Tacoma lumber heiress, perishes after the birth. Christine's father is the son of Thor Storm, a sage giant from Norway who came to Alaska as a youth and had struck up an association with Kennedy. Czar Kennedy and Thor Storm represent two opposed views of Alaska's situation but are linked together by their mutual affection for their grand-daughter. The disagreements between the two men are articulated in the editorial pages of their daily newspapers. Storm's "Northern Light" challenges the ultra-conservatism of Kennedy's "Daily Lode," and campaigns tirelessly for statehood and against absentee landlordism and profiteering. Christine is brought up by these two doting combatants, with the assistance of Bridie Ballantyne, once a trained nurse but now, in her sixties, the puckish spokesperson and self-appointed "greeter" for Baranof.
Czar Kennedy wishes to marry his grand-daughter off to Bayard Husack, the rakish son of a Northwest fisheries magnate, in order that their two economic empires might together exercise increased control over Alaska. With this greater clout, they hope to get young Bayard elected governor of Alaska. Kennedy and Husack conspire to bring Bayard to Baranof with a very beautiful siren, Dina Drake, who is acting as one of Dave Husack's secretaries, and is hoping to capture Bayard, to who she is reportedly engaged. If Chris gets jealous enough of Dina's position, the plan goes, she might work up some affection for the would-be governor. Husack arrives with lobbyists for the exploitative fisheries and a Seattle salmon-packing concern, as well as an official for the Department of the Interior.
Ultimately, Chris must choose between Bayard, the cynical young Seattleite with political prospects, and Ross, a jovial, bronzed airline pilot who is part-Eskimo and all-Alaskan. All the major villains are accounted for in Ferber's depiction; she is not particularly nuanced in her portrayal of character. Indeed, there are only two kinds of people in this novel: those who would keep Alaska a territory, represented by Czar Kennedy and Dave Husack, and those who perceive its great destiny in the liberation by statehood, a cause passionately proclaimed by Thor and Christine Storm and Bridie Ballantyne, outspoken rebels against the economic and political forces responsible for the decades-long exploitation of Alaska and its continued colonial servitude.
The crux of the novel is the continuing struggle between the two grandfathers for control of Christine's mind and life. The scene of the novel involves two locations: Baranof, the mythical composite city in central Alaska (based largely on Fairbanks), and Oogruk (based on Kotzebue), another mythical town in the "bush" area of northwest Alaska. There is also one scene set in the United States Senate, in which a bill for Alaska Statehood is considered.
The "Ice Palace" for which the novel is named is a fourteen-story apartment-hotel, housing every modern convenience: super-market, shops, restaurant, beauty parlor,--a city under one roof. The palace also symbolizes Alaska's situation: those inside the walls of ice can see out, while those outside cannot see in. Alaskans, Ferber argues, are in touch with the modern world; those in the forty-eight states, however, are ignorant of this fact.
Critics tended to agree that Ice Palace made a strong case for statehood but lacked in novelistic style and craft. Ernest Gruening, at the time of the novel's publication the "Tennessee Plan" Senator-elect for the Territory of Alaska, calls Ice Palace the first novel to deal with "Alaska as a whole; its character, its drama, its potentials, its basic problem, and its people, whom she obviously likes and admires, and with whose aspirations she clearly sympathizes." 6 It is, he concludes, a novel with a scope befitting "The Great Land." Elizabeth Janeway, writing in the New York Times Book Review, suggests that Ice Palace is a "hybrid form in which the fictional element has nearly succumbed to the nonfictional." The "local color" of the novel is amusing but the plot is "absent-minded to the point of being ramshackle," the "narrative is uncompromisingly bald." Ferber's novel' is more of a "movie script married to a survey of geography, industry and politics in our largest territorial possession."7
A Time reviewer acknowledged that Ferber, like Edmund Wilson, had "pencil, pad, and purpose." Her research is evident, as the book details everything from parkas and salmon fishing to Gold Rush prostitutes and exploitation by Seattle business interests. Newsweek found her "plugging of Alaskan statehood" to be "steady, impassioned, and on the surface at least, convincing;" the novel, as a whole, was deemed "sprawling, engaging, but essentially shallow." 8 A reviewer in the Wisconsin Library Journal voiced contemporary Cold-War concerns: "If a reader stays with the novel, he will have some ideas of the territory and its proximity to Russia and the urgency for statehood." 9 Surely, the logic went, Alaska would be the first target in a Soviet push westward.
Ruth Chapin Blackman of the Christian Science Monitor found the novel "static," one in which--thinking of Kennedy and Storm--"two extremes of outlook confront each other bleakly and immovably throughout the book." Chris, taken to be representative of "Alaska itself," comes through as an "ordinary and uncommonly naive young woman." Blackman does, however, consider Ferber's vivid surface picture of Alaska successful and grants that her "concern with values" can give "even a novel of doubtful achievement an importance beyond itself." 10 Similar judgements had been made of protest fiction throughout the century--from The Jungle to Grapes of Wrath to Native Son. But these books had announced important injustices and done perhaps no small part to right the wrongs they detailed. The Anchorage Daily Times suggested that Congressmen, after the 1958 spring recess, would return home to find "a great number of their lady constituents have just read Ice Palace and that they have suddenly become tremendously interested in the book's locale." These lady constituents, the Times continued, "are apt to have greater faith too, in Miss Ferber's report than in any alibi a congressman can invent." The statehood bills would assume a curious urgency, aided by the fact that "right when the November election comes up, Ice Palace will doubtless be at the peak of the bestseller lists. A shrewd politician will not underestimate the power of a lady novelist."11
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