Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon opens on a scene right out of a breakneck adventure novel. Mapping rocks alone 20 miles from the Arctic Circle, close to heat stroke but committed to finishing the survey, author Mary Albanese finds herself confronted with a black bear. An aggressive black bear. She draws her .44 Magnum and faces off against the creature, uncertain that a handgun will stop him if he charges. The scene resolves in an astonishing fashion, but what's truly surprising is that the whole book is made up of stories just as exciting, albeit in different ways.
Perhaps most amazing of all is how Albanese ended up in Alaska to begin with. Unable to land a teaching job despite a newsworthy shortage there, she applied to the University of Alaska in a bid to gain residency. Accepted into both the education and geology programs, she went with the intention to get her master's in teaching. A chance occurrence changed her mind and she joined the geology program at a time when there were few women in the field, and began work in places virtually untouched by humans.
Albanese tells her story in short, self-contained chapters. Topics range from meeting the man she would marry at a party to dealing with sexist professors, trying not to freeze to death in substandard housing and the thrill of mapping previously uncharted terrain. Alaska is known for drawing outsize personalities, and there are many on display here, with stories running the gamut from comedy to tragedy. The story spans the mid-1970's to early 80's, and the culture clash between the old west/last frontier crowd and a bunch of college kids still carrying flower power residue adds to the scenery. Not that there's any need for additional tension in a place where failure to wear enough clothing at one time can result in the loss of digits. “When the inside of your freezer is the warmest place in your house, something is terribly wrong,” Albanse writes of one particularly nasty cabin she stayed in.
While much of the story is exuberant and fun, tragedy visits when Albanese loses her daughter shortly after birth. Friends who were pregnant at the same time avoid her, and she channels her grief into fanatical overachievement before finally relaxing her guard once more.
As a work of recent history, personal odyssey, hair-raising adventure and tall tale that just happens to be true, Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon is a winner. Anyone just beginning to dream their own big dreams will find a friend, guide and collaborator in these pages, which may be all the inspiration you need to plot your course.
Read a Q&A with author Mary Albanese about her experiences in Alaska.