Before his best selling “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” before his New Yorker articles, and in the early days of his long Alaska journalism career, Homer writer Tom Kizzia wrote “The Wake of the Unseen Object.” Published in 1991 by Henry Holt, it achieved some critical success.
Listed by the Alaska Historical Society in 2006 as one of Alaska’s best nonfiction and history books, “The Wake of the Unseen Object” achieved a following, particularly in rural Alaska.
“A forgotten classic—not only one of the top books about Alaska Native culture, but one of the best Alaska books ever,” said Nick Jans, author of “A Wolf Called Romeo,” of Kizzia’s first book “… Every bit as fresh and relevant today as it was a quarter century ago.”
And now, thanks to a comment Jans made to University of Alaska Press editor Eric Heyne, “The Wake of the Unseen Object” has been reprinted as part of the UA Press’ Classic Reprint Series. Released in December, it’s now available as both an e-book and trade paperback through the University of Chicago Press, the UA Press distributor, and the Homer Bookstore. The reprint includes a new introduction by Kizzia. He did a book launch video with Heyne, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t planned any signings.
Heyne reprinted “The Wake of the Unseen Object” after he had a talk with Jans about the best Alaska nonfiction books. Heyne asked him to name his favorites — excluding Jans’ own work — and Jans mentioned “The Wake of the Unseen Object.”
Heyne had never heard of it. He got a copy and it so impressed him he asked Kizzia if he wanted to do a reprint.
“I did nothing to make this happen,” Kizzia said. “… It’s nice to hear it had that kind of merit I was aiming for with the literature.”
A literary travel narrative about rural Alaska, “The Wake of the Unseen Object” faced a challenge in 2020 that it might not have had in 1991. Kizzia said there was some apprehension “about what this white guy in the 1980s said and why do we care?” It had to go before the UA Press advisory committee that included professors of Native American studies. They approved the reprint.
“I was really pleased,” Kizzia said. “They saw it as something that had lasting value.”
“The Wake of the Unseen Object” had its roots in some stories Kizzia wrote for the Homer News in the spring of 1976 about Seldovia, Nanwalek (then English Bay) and Port Graham. The first chapter in “Wake of the Unseen Object” is about a trip Kizzia made to Nanwalek that came out of one of the Homer News stories.
“That was the one that gave me an idea there’s a world out here nobody knows anything about,” Kizzia said.
A graduate in 1975 of Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Kizzia first came to Alaska in 1973 to climb mountains. He returned after graduation to visit Nancy Lord and Ken Castner, two college friends who settled in Homer. He had applied for reporter jobs in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Lord and Castner were working at the Homer News and introduced Kizzia to then owner Gary Williams. Williams offered him a job. Kizzia said he’d never considered living in a small town.
“Instead of starting in the newspaper daily world I started off in the small town weekly world,” he said.
While in Homer he also did some freelance work for Howard Weaver and Pat Dougherty at the Alaska Advocate. Kizzia left Homer for a stint in Washington, D.C., doing business journalism and freelance work, “trying to figure out if I wanted to be an Alaskan or an East Coast guy.”
He said he chose Alaska after being at a party in D.C. and talking about living in Homer. Someone said it must have been weird to live in a place where everybody was the same. Kizzia said he thought about how different people were in Homer and then looked around the room.
“Everybody in the room had a white shirt and tie and horned-rim glasses. I said, ‘I have to get out of here. I have to get back to Alaska,’” Kizzia said.
When the McClatchy newspaper chain bought the Anchorage Daily News, Weaver joined as editor and Dougherty as managing editor. They hired Kizzia. McClatchy pumped money into the Daily News for a newspaper battle with the Anchorage Times, then the biggest paper in the state.
“It was obviously a different era of journalism,” Kizzia said. “In some ways it was a golden age.”
With his small town Alaska experience, Kizzia pitched an idea to Weaver and Dougherty. Many people in Anchorage had no experience of rural Alaska. What if Kizzia traveled the state, sought out stories and wrote short dispatches? They bought the idea, and for two years Kizzia traveled and wrote about 80 articles for a series called “North Country Journal.” They had to be short, about 750 words, the sort of thing you could read over a cup of coffee.
“For two years I was just making my own schedule — where should I go next? — and trying to piece together trips that made sense,” he said. “… For me, as a writer, everywhere I’d look there were incredible stories nobody had ever told or heard and put down on paper. It was phenomenal. It was very exciting.”
In the 1980s, travel in the Bush was different. Kizzia said before going to a town he would call the local tribal authority.
“People were more open in those days,” he said. “There wasn’t as much traffic as there is now. They didn’t have a way to push you off into the siding, here’s where we put our visitors. I found myself mixing up in the community. My sense was they wanted their stories told more.”
Alaska Native politics at the time was going through an internal struggle, Kizzia said. On the one hand were people coming to power through the Alaska Native corporations established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Sometimes in opposition were people looking to organize as tribal governments and entities. Alaska then also had a rural-urban divide that would manifest in issues like subsistence hunting and fishing rights. The rural-urban divide also was to some extent a Native-white divide, too, though not entirely.
“There was that sense that rural Alaska Native culture was not getting into the paper, but not in the political speech kind of of way, but how does the world look out there?” Kizzia said.
Kizzia took a break from journalism to turn the “North Country Journal” articles into a book. About 40% of the series made it into “The Wake of the Unseen Object.”
“I was trying to focus on what would be the best stories to tell, places to describe,” he said. “I tried to think about what stories tell these bigger stories.”
Looking back 30 years, Kizzia said he recognized that some terms might not be in favor now, like “Eskimo” and “Indian.” Place names also had changed, like English Bay. He said he was tempted to add notes to the new version, “but once I start doing that, notes would be a second half of the book.”
Some aspects of rural life have changed. Three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles now have four wheels. Ratnet, a rural TV satellite network, is now the Internet. Elders who were alive in the 1980s and who had a connection to an earlier time have died. Some things haven’t changed, Kizzia said.
“Another thing that’s similar now to then is that it was not intended to be an elegy for a lost world or a fading world,” Kizzia said. “The goal here was to present the Alaska Native as a contemporary life that draws on a deep past, but isn’t about the past. It’s about the present and the future. That’s a difficult perspective for an outsider to get in focus. … The effort to see that and get that sharp understanding is as important today as it was 30 years ago.”
Retired from full-time journalism, Kizzia still writes an occasional article for the Daily News as well as the New Yorker. His next new book will come out this summer, “Cold Mountain Path,” about the ghost town decades of McCarthy and Kennecott from 1938 to 1983. For more information on that book and Kizzia, visit his website at www.tomkizzia.com.