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During one of his many visits to the Northwest Territories, Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, was asked by a native elder how long he intended to stay. Before Lopez could respond, the elder, who’d met a journalist or two in his day, grinned and answered his own question. “One day: newspaper story. Two days: magazine story. Five days: book.”

The point was a shrewd one: There is a timeworn tradition of writers traveling to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska to marvel at the land—at its nightless summers, its eccentric inhabitants, its fearsome bears. Jack London spent less than a year in the Klondike. John McPhee based Coming Into the Country on four trips from his home in New Jersey. The fascination of the North stems, in part, from the fact that it’s a damn hard place to visit, much less live in; little wonder that much of its literature is penned by outsiders.

You’re allowed, therefore, some initial skepticism of Kings of the Yukon, whose author, Adam Weymouth, lives, the jacket tells us, “on a Dutch barge in London.” Kings—one part travelogue, one part ethnography, and 10 parts ode to a charismatic fish—recounts a 2,000-mile canoe trip down the Yukon River, from ice-strewn headwaters to sprawling delta. Weymouth’s journey runs countercurrent to the upriver migration of the Yukon’s king salmon: “many pounds of muscle, toned through years of swimming headlong into Pacific storms, and their flesh … red as blood.” These mighty fish give Kings its title and focus—and help its author find, remarkably, something new and insightful to say about the North.

Weymouth’s Yukon fixation began in 2013, a year when just 37,000 king salmon returned to the Yukon—scarcely 10 percent of the historical average. The previous year, 23 Yup’ik fishermen had been arrested for flouting a state fishing ban, a deliberate act of civil disobedience. At their trial, which Weymouth covered for The Atlantic, the defendants noted salmon’s centrality to Yup’ik religion and argued that the First Amendment protected their right to fish. The judge, though sympathetic, slapped each fisherman with a $250 fine.

When Weymouth returns to investigate further in 2016, he finds a culture in slow collapse, fading with its most important resource. Fishing is permitted again, but it’s hardly worth it. Young people have decamped for Alaska and Fairbanks; fish-drying sheds stand derelict. Inside one abandoned cabin, “threadbare curtains blow in the breeze from shattered windows. … The clock is stopped at twenty past four, the calendar stopped at August 2011.”

Although Weymouth explores the science behind the decline’s possible causes—Is it overfishing? Ocean conditions? Climate change?—he is most concerned about its human victims. As he drifts from Dawson City to Emmonak, he meets a parade of Native and white fishermen, whose stories he tells with delicacy and dry humor. There’s Isky, a rapping descendant of Pueblo Indians who wants to make fishing cool for local kids again; Richard, who sardonically narrates bus tours for discomfited New Zealanders; Jim, a caviar-plant operator who goes by Egg Man. Especially memorable is Mary Demientieff, a gregarious Athabascan elder with “family the length of the river, the breadth of the state.” Mary presides over a flagging fish camp, where in the evenings she plays the guitar with “glee, unselfconsciously … laughing and wheezing,” a scene so charming it almost dispels the sadness.

Inevitably, Kings of the Yukon revives some familiar Alaskan tropes: Practically every writer who’s ever encountered a grizzly—including, admittedly, me—has meditated on feeling “conflicted between fear and the privilege of the moment.” (Your anxiety and awe are probably heightened when you come from a country whose largest carnivore is the badger.) Mostly, though, Weymouth’s nature writing is exquisite, even when he’s evoking the unlovely end of a salmon’s cycle: “Its kype is caught in a rictus somewhere between a snarl and a leer, and its gills are clouded with fungus, where it gasps for air as though breathing through cotton wool.” Just as Weymouth acclimates to the rhythms of his voyage, one of Kings’ joys is stretching out in its prose, stately and pleasurable as a flat stretch of river.

While fishing communities have waned, Weymouth finds that another culture has ascended to take their place: reality TV. Half the riverside dwellers he meets, it seems, feature in one of Alaska’s myriad unscripted dramas, from Andy of Life Below Zero to Stan from Yukon Men. “It seems quite possible,” Weymouth writes, “that Alaska has the highest ratio of television celebrities in the world.” Forget salmon—the biggest drivers of Yukon commerce today are National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. If we don’t reverse salmon’s collapse, reality stars might someday be the Yukon’s last kings.

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent contributor to High Country News, where this review first appeared.

Kings of the Yukon

By Adam Weymouth

Little, Brown and Company

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider.

A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.”

That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.

“The (Native) culture on display,” she writes, “plays a bit part in a larger performance reflecting the dominant culture of the tourists themselves.” One local wryly calls the guides “Stepford Natives,” noting their perpetual cheer and willingness to go along with their customers’ cherished fantasies of a whitewashed past. Not to mention their idealized notions of the present: “Alcoholism, neglect, jealousy and violence (don’t) exist in the world of the Stepford Natives,” Bunten observes. “The veteran guides carved out larger-than-life personas. … It protected them from having to deal with never being able to live up to guests’ expectations of what it means to be Native.”

With journalistic precision, Bunten explores topics as varied as the influence of cruise lines on the Alaskan economy, the history of the Tlingit people and the ongoing effects of colonization on tribes. Despite occasionally awkward attempts at softening the narrative with lighthearted banter or extraneous personal asides, she succeeds in creating a sharply focused picture of cultural tourism today, especially in villages like Sitka, where between 10 and 20 percent of the local jobs are tourism-related. By fusing economic data with the personal experiences of Native guides—including her own—Bunten exposes the side effects of turning one’s culture into a valued commodity.

“Our clients longed for us to be further removed from modernity than themselves,” she writes. “And we complied by talking about nature, subsistence, ceremonies, and demonstrating other signs of ‘primitivism’—but we did so on our own terms.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide

By Alexis C. Bunten

University of Nebraska Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

Eowyn Ivey's surefooted and captivating debut novel, The Snow Child, begins in 1920, as Mabel and Jack—middle-aged homesteaders in Alaska—try to rough it through their second winter there.

They'd moved West to escape painful memories of their only child, stillborn 10 years earlier, and the crush of nearby family that reminded them of their loss. The brutal Alaskan winters batter them with isolation and relentless cold, and they nearly starve. Eventually, with the help of friendly neighbors, the new landscape helps Mabel and Jack remember why they loved each other in the first place, and in a fit of playfulness, they build a snowman, shaping it like a girl and dressing it with a red scarf.

The snow girl vanishes, and Mabel and Jack begin to catch glimpses of a child in the woods, "a red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees."

They leave gifts for the girl, who approaches them cautiously. Her name is Faina, and she gradually becomes a mysterious, seasonal daughter to them, eating at their table, accompanying them on chores, and always disappearing into the wilderness at the first signs of snowmelt.

The Russian fairy tale of the Snow Maiden ("Snegurochka") inspired Ivey, and she weaves it throughout The Snow Child, as Mabel consults the different versions of the story to try to account for the behavior of their surrogate child. Ivey takes a fantastical premise and runs with it, playing it two ways, creating a novel that is both realistic and magical.

Jack discovers that Faina was the child of a local drunk who died in the wilderness, leaving her to grow up alone and feral. Yet no one else has ever seen her, and there are odd parallels between the girl's life and the folktale Mabel studies; for instance, both Faina and the Snow Maiden have a red fox as a companion.

Ivey's prose has the lulling quality of a fairy tale, and the native Alaskan's portraits of the state's fierce winters and singular inhabitants are convincing enough to make readers believe in Faina.

At one point, Mabel thinks, "To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers."

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey

Reagan Arthur

416 pages, $14.99

Published in Literature