KEN COATES's North to Alaska (McClelland & Stewart, 304 pages, $34.95 cloth) rolls out the exciting story of the building of the Alaska Highway. How the great road north from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks, Alaska, came to be is a capsule version of frontiering and northern development. Built to quell American paranoia about Japanese invasion in the early 1940s, it later served as a buffer in the Cold War, and more recently has helped northern development and tourism. But there is less gold and glory in Coates's history than a recounting of the sheer guts it took to create the highway.
During initial construction, begun in 1942, all the horrors of northern isolation prevailed. But the bad food, frozen everything, danger, and deprivation (very little booze, very few women) somehow drove the 20,000 (mostly male) US military engineers and Canadian civilians 1,500 miles in less than eight months. And while the highway's completion was due largely to co-operation between the US and Canadian governments, Coates makes it clear that the success really sprang from the honest sweat and commitment of those who built it and have since maintained it.
Coates, who is a historian at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, knows of what he speaks. He first travelled the Highway at the age of seven when his father, a civil engineer, was assigned to help reconstruct it in the early 1960s. As a teenager, Coates himself worked summers between university terms as a "car counter" for the Canadian government.
North to Alaska, drawn from research, interviews, and the author's personal experience, does have its imperfect side. But it is not because of Coates. The openly racist attitudes of some of the participants, recorded in original documents and in recent interviews, are stark reminders of how Blacks and Native peoples were once routinely treated. There were practically no Canadian Natives employed in the construction of the Highway, despite their presence along its route, and the Southern Black military engineers were scorned by some of their fellow workers.
Today, after many face-lifts, the Highway is a far cry from the frontier road it once was. Most of it is paved, and the romance of shattered windshields, punctured gas tanks, and a steady diet of mud and dust is all but gone.