Tag Archives: Kachemak Bay

The Prince of Kodiak: Old Believers, or Going Rogue

Alfred, an Aleut Native, is the title character of “The Prince of Kodiak,” the third story in Halibut Rodeo. Alfred is a large guy, the type of dude, as my father pointed out, that you want on your side in a bar fight. In the story he falls for an Old Believer named Anneke.  Anneke wears a brightly colored skirt and blouse to work, even though that work entails the gutting of fish.  She never works on Sundays, even though it would pay overtime.  In “Breaking the Halibut” Leo, one of the supervisors, is expelled from Anneke’s village for listening to the radio and smoking hash.

Early drafts of these stories were workshopped by other MFA students during my time at Wichita State.  One student cried foul for Leo’s expulsion, because he didn’t find it believable.  Bob Shacochis, the leader of the workshop, asked what the class knew about Old Believers.

Nothing, it turned out.  The student who didn’t buy Leo’s expulsion assumed I had made then up.

No, I didn’t make them up.  There are about 1,500 Old Believers in Alaska.  Their founders were part of a splinter group that left Oregon in the 1960s because they feared the influence of American culture on their kids.  Like so many other characters in my book, they rejected a life in the Lower 48 to pursue a new existence in America’s Final Frontier.

Old Believers don’t originate in Oregon, however.  In the 17th century Nikon (no relation to the camera), the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, instituted a number of changes to church ritual to bring it closer to that of the Greek Orthodox.  Most of these changes were minor: the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross, for example, or the proper way to spell “Jesus.”  As is usually the case with the religious, not everyone went along with it.  (Religious history is filled with these traditionalists.  A few survive, like the Coptic Christians of Egypt.  Most don’t.)  The Czar adopted the changes, though, so those who didn’t were first excommunicated by the Church, and then persecuted by the Russian government.  These Old Believers fled, some going to the outskirts of the Russian Empire, like Siberia, or modern day Bulgaria.  Eventually a number of them ended up in Oregon.

Like the Amish and the Mennonites, Old Believers are very protective of their heritage  Purveyors of American culture (radio, television, computers) are often banned in Old Believer towns.  Until recently, teachers in some Old Believer schools were not allowed to have computers in their classroom.  Now some have them on their desks, but the students are not given access.

But times are a’changin.’  Alaskan Old Believers have traditionally made their living in the fishing industry.  But fishing is a feast or famine occupation.  There have been bans on fishing King Crab in Alaska, and the Exxon oil spill wreaked havoc on the salmon and halibut populations in not only Prince William Sound, but also in the waters around Kachemak Bay.  More Old Believers than ever before are finishing high school and looking for work in places like Anchorage.

This “modernization” will certainly lead to more fracturing of the community.  Periodic schisms seem to be the norm amongst Old Believers.  In Nikolaevsk, an Old Believer village on Kenai Peninsula, not far from Homer, the powers that be decided to reintroduce priests to their church.  Formal clergy had been banned in the past.  They even found a priest in Romania and brought him to Alaska.  (Kinda like Joel, the doctor from New York, in “Northern Exposure.”)  But just like before, not everyone embraced the change.  The bezpopovtsy, or “Priestless Old Believers,” left Nikolaevsk and started their own community out in the middle of nowhere.  Talking about Going Rogue…

Which reminds me: I wander what Alaskan Old Believers think of Sarah Palin?

I like to think they’ve never heard of heard of her.

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On “The Slime-Line Queen”

“The Slime-Line Queen” is the opening story of Halibut Rodeo. In some ways it serves as a type of overture to the book, introducing a number of motifs, as well as many of the characters that appear in their own stories. It was my first “Alaska” story, and the second story I wrote as a graduate student in Bob Shacoshis’ workshop at Wichita State. During that first semester of graduate school I lived in a cruddy basement apartment that was infested with crickets. My shower was a tin washtub with a drain hole punched into the bottom. The only place to sit was the bed. Most of the rest of the basement stored the landlady’s lifetime accumulation of old clothes and appliances. It was dark and damp, but the rent was only $110 a month. More importantly, hotshot fiction writer James Lee Burke lived next door.

I punched out “The Slime-Line Queen” on a cheap typewriter while scrunched over my bed. The first draft was substantially longer than what first appeared in “Writers’ Forum,” a journal from Colorado. It contained sections about the protagonist’s sexual awakening before he travels to Homer to work at Seward Fisheries. Shacoshis quite rightly pointed out that so many lengthy flashbacks about the protagonist removed the reader from the immediate story, and in no way advanced the plot. I had probably taken the whole “show, don’t tell” axiom way too literally. In my earlier stories I relied too much on dramatization to round out my characters, rather than well-chosen details. I revised the story that semester, and the version in Halibut Rodeo is pretty close to that version.

One early reader once asked me if “The Slime-Line Queen” was “real.” In some ways, yes, she is. Her physical appearance is inspired by a woman I didn’t know who worked at Seward Fisheries: a tall blond woman who always wore the same jeans and flannel shirt. My character’s personality and mannerisms was inspired by another woman I worked with. Unlike me, she lived in Alaska year round, and had been working at the plant for a number of years already. Some of the events in the story are autobiographical. The woman did live in a cabin in the woods, and I did indeed spend a sexless night with her. The details about Seward Fisheries and the slime-line are taken directly from personal experience. Many of the workers did camp out on the beach, and all the businesses I mention, including the Salty Dawg Saloon, really did exist. (During the workshop, one fellow student mocked my name choice for the bar.) In the story the relationship between the protagonist and the slime-line queen is far more serious than anything that happened between me and the woman who lived in the cabin. If I had stuck to the “truth,” the story wouldn’t have been terribly interesting. While most of the actual events of the story are made-up, the protagonist is only a slightly veiled version of me.

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On Homer: The Eagle Lady

Many of the characters and situations in Halibut Rodeo are inspired by my stay in Homer.  Like most fiction writers, I often speculate on the lives of people I see on the street, inventing identities, imagining conflicts, etc.  Such ponderings often lead to fully developed characters in my short stories.  Many of the main characters in Halibut Rodeo have their origins in this process.  Other characters live on the fringe of the book as an aspect of setting, adding shades of detail to the main action. The Eagle Lady is one such “detail.” She worked at Seward Fisheries, and even though I saw her nearly every day, I never said more than a few words to her. It was hard to tell how old she was. Nearly 70 was my guess, though she still wore heavy make up and a mass of curly red hair that might have been a wig. She was about six feet tall and walked with a severe limp. Someone told me the limp was from a career as a rodeo rider. After retirement she moved to Homer. And why the Eagle Lady? Bald eagles are nothing unusual in Homer. You see one every day in the summer. For years the Eagle Lady had been feeding the eagles in her backyard with scrapes of fish. Up until a few years ago, at least, the second largest concentration of Bald Eagles in Alaska was in the ex-rodeo rider’s backyard.

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