The Enigmatic Alaskan Woman | LeMagduCine

From American James Oliver Curwood, we mainly know in France novels classified as children’s literature. By editing The Alaskan Woman (original publication in 1923), the Arthaud editions remind us that this lover of the Far North wrote for all audiences.

From the outset, when she unexpectedly embarks on the Name (from the name of the city of destination to which it is certainly attached), Mary Standish appears as mysterious and fascinating. From the first pages, an exchange on deck with Captain Rifle (a sniper?) makes us understand that she was fleeing from something and that it was only thanks to the captain’s intervention that she was able to go up to board, at the last moment and without prior reservation, with a handbag as simple luggage. She claims to go to Alaska only to learn. But as the title indicates, she would like to become an Alaskan woman (original title: The Alaskan, more neutral), when at this moment she can just think of herself as an American. She is introduced to the main passengers by the captain, in particular Alan Holt, a man who lives further north (he returns to his home), owner of a ranch where he raises reindeer. In the eyes of Alan Holt, Mary Standish appears as a lovely young woman of 23 years old, slim and slender, with resplendent brown hair. Over the comings and goings on the boat, over meals in the common room, everyone got to know her and, quickly, we felt she had confidence in Alan Holt. So much so that she walks very naturally with him, putting her hand on his arm, especially one day of stopover when he makes her discover the town of Skagway. This does not prevent Alan Holt from observing bizarre facts around this charming person. Thus, she seems to know a certain Rossland, or at least be wary of it. However, Alan Holt knows perfectly who this Rossland is, neither more nor less than the henchman of the one he hates the most in the world (for serious personal reasons), the so-called John Graham.

Events rush

One evening (late), Alan Holt hears a noise behind the door of his cabin. A clue leads him to think that Mary Standish probably hesitated there, but why? A few days later, he observes a heated conversation between her and Rossland. Finally, another evening, Mary Standish comes knocking on his door, asking him to help her organize his disappearance. Otherwise, she might never make it to Nome. Troubled, Alan Holt hesitates and the young woman hastily escapes. The next day, a dramatic incident occurs, since someone jumps overboard. Of course, it is Mary Standish… who cannot be found, despite a rapid intervention by the emergency services. Not understanding why she committed suicide, Alan Holt is very affected by it and realizes a little late that he is in love! But this is obviously only the end of a first part (not marked by the author as such), aboard the Name, and the novel has only just begun. However, this part constitutes in my opinion the most successful because the most significant. It must be said that the author was able to establish a mysterious situation. In the center of this painting, sits a fascinating creature, as much for its beauty and its elegance as for its weaknesses and its character and above all the mystery it exudes.

A romance and adventure novel

James Oliver Curwood is inspired by his characters and, let’s not go overboard, he makes Alaska a character in its own right, especially when he describes its magnificent landscapes, but also its inhabitants. There, a certain number of Americans like Alan Holt rub shoulders with a good number of characters from the region, that is to say Eskimos belonging to different tribes. These Indians are not the best characterized characters here (unlike Mary Standish and Alan Holt, as well as, to a lesser extent, Stampede, friend of Alan Holt), but they contribute to establish a certain atmosphere to which the author visibly holds. Indeed, from the beginning, it sets out to show the disastrous effects of the mentality brought by those who, like John Graham, are there only to exploit the resources of the region like one squeezes a lemon. Unlike John Graham, Alan Holt showed great respect for the integrity of Alaska, to the point of traveling to Washington to defend his views. The preface of Dominique Lanni As a reminder, Alaska is the largest of the American states (with Canada to separate them) and its history goes back a long way, with its Inuit tribes, but also a movement of trappers from Russia, on the other side of the strait of Bering, before Russia sold this immense territory to the United States for a pittance. A territory that saw the dramatic sinking of two French boats when L’Astrolabe et Compass shipping La Perouse passed there, leaving a strong memory. A region that sees a long winter where the sun only makes timid appearances following a long summer where it never really sets. All this permeates with happiness The Alaskan Woman and its twists, a novel which can unfortunately be criticized for being too transparent with regard to the elements of suspense. Thus, the secret of Mary Standish. When she finally decides to reveal it to Alan Holt, we suspected it for a while. Nevertheless, their love story is one that we appreciate, with all its adventures. I particularly remember this period when Alan Holt travels the coast in search of his body which he hopes will be rejected by the sea and where his love for her invades him to the point that he spends his days observing everything while sharing his thoughts with her, because, in her mind, she is more alive than ever.

See as well

The Woman from Alaska, James Oliver Curwood
Arthaud, April 2022

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