Geo Beach and I have been close friends for nearly a half-century; his literary wisdom and counsel stand behind every line of poetry and prose I have written. No him, no me. This review meant the world to me when it appeared in the Anchorage Daily News in 2004, and still resonates deeply.
Independent journalist Geo Beach writes for Anchorage Daily News, National Public Radio, History TV, and TomPaine.com.
Sure, Alaska is in the Americas. But, united with other states? That's a matter of opinion. And that's one reason why Anthony Weller's The Siege of Salt Cove is the summer's salient book. As well as the funniest and most poignant, a Far Side farce come true.
When Anthony Weller and I met in high school he was already a good writer. The son of George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter posted to overseas assignments, Anthony consequently grew up largely in correspondence with his father, a childhood mapped out on onionskin, Par Avion tricolors to and fro across oceans.
That will sharpen your eye, and your pen.
After college, Anthony himself began a colorful career as a foreign correspondent, writing for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Playboy, and National Geographic. Then he started writing books – about the Caribbean, where he spent summers; Eastern Europe, where he played jazz; and the Indian subcontinent, where he traversed miles and millennia toe-to-tip on the Grand Trunk Road.
Weller has returned to the United States for the locale of his new novel, and just in time.
America seems like another country now, in need of a well-traveled perspective to accurately report it. It’s someplace else. Alaskans have long understood that – “Outside” is anyplace that’s not Alaska, without distinction between the US and other foreign countries. And Weller understands – he knows Lower-48ers think their America is someplace else now too.
Salt Cove is a New England village with a problem. The state has decreed the demolition of a 200-year-old wooden bridge, intending to replace it with a concrete monstrosity. The villagers attempt negotiation; the bureaucrats are intransigent. So in brave desperation, Salt Cove secedes from the Commonwealth and the Union.
When The Sals (Outsiders call them Saltines) persist in their opposition to diktat, the government brings in SWAT teams and the National Guard. Big guns are deployed, lives lost, little won.
Sound familiar? The US Navy shelled the villages of Kake and Wrangell in 1869 and destroyed Angoon in 1882. And since statehood, many Alaskans have felt in a perpetual state of siege to the alphanumerics of federal government, from ANCSA’s d-2 lands to ANWR’s 1002 Area.
But Salt Cove doesn’t echo just ancient history. These days, Girdwood talks about seceding from the Municipality of Anchorage. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Homer freethinkers ponder whether to secede and form their own Kachemak Country Borough. And statewide, the Alaskan Independence Party was built upon the rough-cut plank of secession from the US. Venitie went to the Supreme Court declaring itself Indian Country, a sovereign nation.
The memory of secession in The States is wrapped in the racism of the war between them. But there was that earlier, brighter history – The Declaration of Secession that will be celebrated again on the Fourth of July.
And The Siege of Salt Cove celebrates independence with a marvelous teapartytime sensibility – half Boston Patriots, half Mad Hatters. Weller unleashes a chorus of 39 narrative voices, so Salt Cove shouts and whispers like a small town meeting. As in life, you have to determine where truth lies.
Weller knows, “from Alaska to Long Island’s South Fork to Cherokee Nation, an island in the Rio Grande, and multiple Indian protests on Martha’s Vineyard, in Vermont, in Maine… Everyone wants his own country.”
Since the passage of the Patriot Act, lots of Americans have decided they just want their own country back. More than 250 towns, including Anchorage, have passed resolutions against the Pat Act, with its erosion of representative government and civil liberties. And so have four states – Yankee Maine and Vermont, plus Hawaii and Alaska.
Despite being bullied, regular folks in small towns are standing up to intrusive big government – and Weller is master here. His dark satire conveys a moving humanity – lives, loves, loss, laughter – exposing truths about domestic enemies as his father did about foreign threats. Today, though, the real story isn't on the front page, it's between the hardcovers of well-wrought fiction.
Whether you’re reading on the back deck of a boat or in the backyard deck chair, The Siege of Salt Cove is a manual for modern Alaskans – Americans who have always been more than summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.
Independent journalist Geo Beach can be reached at email@example.com.