Letters From Alaska: A Novel Trilogy
Author, John Shields (2008)
Price: $17.04, Paperback, 349 pages
Author, John Shields’ book is exceptional; he is a highly descriptive writer, in the genre of academic fiction. There is no question as to what his book is about. Shields’ prose is written as precise as a careful surgeon. His structural narrative with the minds and movements of his characters and plot, exhibits the theme clearly, and is well balanced. This book is second in Shields’ trilogy, which illustrates the middle years of the life of the protagonist, Ansley Perkins, as he was the intellectual collegiate, yet inexperienced young man, whose intellectual philosophy in the Postmodern view manifest fully in these college days, displaying his disconcert with the status quo as he views society in the light of the 60s in America: Viet Nam, Civil Rights, and animosity toward our country’s political machine. Shield’s knowledge of the subject is comprehensive.
Book II of Letters From Alaska depicts the collegiate community and Hippie Generation, being described through the eyes and intellect of graduate student, Ansley Perkins, an astute and ingenius young man who himself personifies the time period as it has never been understood before. Events, such as the war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Hippie experience and the profuse hedonism of the 60s—sex, drugs and rock and roll—all reflecting the age of Postmodernism—are constructed precisely within the mind of the protagonist, who begins his journey in Alaska, at Alaska University, forming the ideas that he believes are a natural reaction to the professions of American patriotism, conformity and convention. It seems Ansley’s vision is to change the world and return man to man’s true place in nature and the universe, by examining traditional America head on. He is constantly challenging his peers, parents, and students with controversial behavior and claims, like outrageous poetry, like crow screetches, sarcasm, cynicism about professors, teachings of societal flaws to students; but also, courageous outbursts, and sincere searching through the newly developing postmodernist ideology. Ansley de-constructs every traditional idea and rails every chance he gets, against the status quo, to prove mostly to himself that he will not fall into the same patterns as those before him, one of the reasons why he chose Alaska University, teaching in a wilderness setting, yet unspoiled by the larger American society. He is obsessively concerned with man and society’s destination—he is obsessively concerned with his own life and his choices.
“It’s like the Freudian ego,” and I put ‘ego’ on the board beside Freud’s name. ‘Ego is the false self,’ I said; ‘ego is the mere appearance of the true self. It’s what stands there waiting to be adorned by roles and labels; it’s what bounces off society’s reflective screen. How society regards us is how we are to regard ourselves. There is no reality apart from society.’ (61)
Ansley relishes in his new wildlife surroundings, while being given classes to teach, and while working on his master’s degree, amidst the Alaskan wildlife. He is ever entranced and raptured by its natural state and beauty: “Rabbits abound; birds: an exceedingly large and rotund variety of pale gray jay. Mice, I imagine, amongst the mushrooms and fecund leaves; perhaps a shrew or two nosing around. No snakes. No snakes in Alaska.”(11) But he also has those yearnings in him that try to understand where he comes from, who and what his roots are, and why he has to listen to anyone or anything about the things he considers to be his own consequence and direction.
Ansley is the quintessential consciousness of the Postmodern Ideology at work. Throughout the book he analyzes his peers, his professors, his family, his fiancee’s family, and every one of the establishment. The reader explores the spirit within the man of the 60s generation—you can’t get any closer to the 60s than this, from the standpoint of an educated revolutionist in. Though subjective and from the standpoint of a particular type of man, it is a perspective and voice from the 60s generation, nonetheless. Ansley is anti-establishment, anti-war, and anti-conservative American thought at the boiling point of the post-modernist unrest. His motive seems to be to prove himself capable of living on the fringe of society, while not really believing in it, and not really accepting it, yet using it as he chooses. He wrestles with the need for it, the need to be in it, to work within the confines somehow, without being actually touched by it.
While Ansley still lives within the confines of society—like frequenting established eating houses, drinking and carousing with his friends, and enjoying the vehicles made by the grand machine of conformers, he still scoffs at all that there is, in favor of some primal return, and we see that Ansley Perkins is not only highly intelligent, but highly young and inexperienced in life, wanting to create in himself a kind of man different than the men he knows through his father, Suzanne’ father, and his sister’s husband, and other sell-outs.
This book, only one of the trilogy, will give you a deep understanding of one specific subculture of the 60s and its concepts about life and society, as well as one man’s personal growth, personal love, and personal identity.