An Alaskan Tale

Author: Jirō Nitta
Translator: Motokuni Eto, Elissa Hendry, and Nicholas Teele
U.S. publisher: University Press of America
ISBN: 9780819173898
Released: December 1990
Original release: 1974

An Alaskan Tale was the first novel by Jirō Nitta, the pen name of Hiroto Fujiwara, to be translated and released in English. Only two other works by Nitta are currently available: Death March on Mount Hakkōda and Phantom Immigrants (both of which I’ve read.) Nitta was a historical novelist with a background in meteorology who was particularly well known for his writings about mountains and the arctic. All three of his historical novels available in English were meticulously researched. An Alaskan Tale became a bestseller in Japan when it was originally published in 1974. A team of translators—Motokuni Eto, Elissa Hendry, and Nicholas Teele—worked on the English-language edition of An Alaskan Tale, released by University Press of American in 1990. The English edition of the novel also includes reproductions of many historic and family photographs.

Kyosuke Yasuda, later known as Frank Yasuda, was born on November 20, 1868 in Ishinomaki, Japan. The middle child in a family of doctors, he had a good understanding of medicine but was otherwise directionless early on in his life. Eventually, Yasuda ended up serving as a cabin boy aboard the United States revenue cutter Bear. When the cutter became trapped in an ice pack in 1893, Yasuda rescued the ship and its crew by crossing the ice alone, seeking help in Barrow, Alaska. Yasuda would remain behind in Point Barrow and was accepted by the coastal native Alaskan community that lived there. He became an important and respected figure among them and he cared deeply for their welfare. As the native population started to decline due in part to over-hunting and poaching by newer residents, Yasuda went to great lengths to establish a settlement along the Yukon River for them. In 1906, he would guide more than a hundred people to the newly formed community of Beaver, Alaska.

One of the things that I particularly like about Nitta’s historical novels is the final chapter of the book which generally focuses on Nitta’s experiences writing the work, his inspirations, and his research methods and process. I can understand that other readers might not be as interested in this material, but I think it makes the novels more personal and relevant. Unfortunately, this final essay isn’t translated as part of the English edition of An Alaskan Tale. Although it is summarized, I did miss having the opportunity to read it in its entirety. I was glad to see that other notes from the author were included at the end of each chapter, further explaining the story’s historical basis and significance. Comments from the translators which make any necessary clarifications and provide additional information were also included.

Frequently, An Alaskan Tale reads like an adventure novel. It is a dramatized account of Yasuda’s life, but most of the events portrayed actually did occur. Yasuda led a very eventful and exciting life on the Alaskan frontier. That fact, and the influence he had on the region, makes him an ideal subject. An Alaskan Tale begins with Yasuda’s treacherous ice crossing to rescue the Bear and follows him closely as he becomes ingrained in the native Alaskan community. He learns traditional hunting and whaling skills and gains a greater understanding of their culture, becoming one of the first outsiders to be accepted so completely by them. Yasuda became an important bridge between the native Alaskans, white society, and even other groups of native Americans, all while still encountering prejudice for being Japanese. An Alaskan Tale is an exciting and engaging narrative with an great mix of adventure, survival, and diplomacy. Based on a true story, it’s a good read.

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  1. I like stories like this, based on true events and especially ones that seem so unlikely. I have always been a person ‘of peace’ in my thinking and when I see cultures cooperate instead of being led by fear, it really inspires me.

    I wonder, do you have a group in your area where someone does read/speak Japanese? Or do you have a Japanese cultural center? Perhaps you could contract an exchange of some type to have things like the end notes interpreted for you.

    • An Alaskan Tale was very interesting from a cultural standpoint. I was completely unfamiliar with Yasuda’s story and his influence before reading the novel.

      Reaching out to local groups is a great idea. I’d need to get my hands on the original Japanese first, though. Something to look into!

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