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Books about the Mat-Su Valley

While there are thousands of “Alaskana” books, there are not very many books which focus on the Mat-Su Valley.

Here are some non-fiction Mat-Su Valley books:

book frozen shield

Frozen Shield: Alaska Cover-Up by Nick Mangieri.  (2000) The author was the Chief of Police for Palmer for just six months in 1975 before he was fired by the City Manager.

From the back cover: “Newly-appointed police chief, Nick Mangieri, was a man with a mission. A daunting task awaited him in the remote Alaskan town that would now be his home.  Expected to rejuvenate the small police agency, he soon discovered that his staff’s morale was low and departmental organization was as precarious as the arctic winds.  With a savvy blend of skill and experience, he restructured the agency, implemented changes that garnered the respect and admiration of his Law Enforcement peers…But the local politicians had other ideas. Nick discovered that the city fathers were enmeshed in a labyrinth of crime and treachery. Crooked judges, illegal land deals and car-bombings were only some of the challenges he faced, laws broken by the lawmakers. Like Diogenes’ quest for an honest man, Nick struggled to find justice…”

book cures and chaos

Cures and Chaos: The Life & Times of Dr. Vincent Hume and His Impact on a Frontier Alaska Town by Joseph Homme. (2007)

This is a biography of Dr. Hume who worked as a doctor in Palmer in the 1960s.

“Dr. Vincent Hume was a charismatic physician, gifted with legendary talents for healing the sick. But there was a mysterious component to his personality, an element of the streets that ran counter to his pedestal position in the frontier Alaska community he served. Over the course of a decade, the origins of his street smarts, combined with a progressive illness and tragic personal events, conspired in his undoing. It was an excruciating public downfall of a respected surgeon, husband, father, friend, and neighbor; a downfall that ignited a public uproar that threatened the very fabric of the small, close knit community.”

Note: A relative of my family was Dr. Hume’s longtime secretary.

book joe mc

The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin by Joe McGinniss. (2011).

This book got terrible reviews but I really enjoyed it anyways because it features many Valley folks – not just Sarah Palin.  Everyone who is anyone in the Mat-Su Valley is in this book.  I got to meet the author when he was here doing research. I was invited to a small gathering at a prominent Valley resident’s home and we all sat out on her deck and chatted with Mr. McGinniss for hours on a beautiful summer night about our community and gave him leads to follow up on etc.

“After three years of research, bestselling journalist Joe McGinniss presents his already controversial and much anticipated investigative chronicle of Sarah Palin as an individual, politician, and cultural phenomenon.   In his critically acclaimed book about Alaska, Going to Extremes, the fledgling state itself was Joe McGinniss’s subject. Although he didn’t hesitate to reveal the many flaws and contradictions behind its “last frontier” image, McGinniss fell in love with the land and its people. More than three decades later, he returned to Alaska in search of its most famous resident, Sarah Palin. On Election Day 2008, McGinniss began his on-the-ground reporting that culminated, famously, in his moving next door to Sarah Palin in spring 2010. THE ROGUE is the eagerly awaited result of his research and writing: a startling study of the illusion and reality of Sarah Palin—and a probing look at the Alaska and the America that produced her. Sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, always provocative and illuminating, THE ROGUE answers the questions “Who is she, really?,” “How did she happen?,” and “Will she ever go away?” In all of his books, McGinniss has scrutinized the mysterious space between image and reality—how that space is created, negotiated, and/or manipulated. Now, with The Rogue, McGinniss combines his deep appreciation of the place Sarah Palin comes from with his uncanny ability to penetrate the façades of people in public life. The result is an extraordinary double narrative that alternately traces Palin’s curious rise to political prominence and worldwide celebrity status and recounts the author’s day-to-day experiences as he uncovers the messy reality beneath the glossy Palin myth. Readers will find THE ROGUE at once bitingly insightful, hilarious, and profoundly ominous in what it reveals…”

book homesteaders

Homesteaders in the Headlights: One family’s Journey from a Depression-era New Jersey Farm to a new life in Wasilla, Alaska by George Harbeson, Jr. (2004)

The Harbeson family was hard to miss in Wasilla, Alaska, in the mid-1950s and the ’60s.
George and Katherine Harbeson were deeply involved in the Valley community, from basketball to the Mat-Su Bookmobile, the Wasilla Library, and the Wasilla-Knik-Willow historical museums. George, a dedicated teacher, was also an influential figure in education and local and state politics.

George Harbeson Jr. writes of his parents’ early lives and the family’s years in Knik and Wasilla with a focus on the universal challenges and rewards of homesteading. Within the framework of school and community activities are tales of friendships and folly, recalcitrant vehicles, basketball dreams, rabbit-hunting cats and faithful canines, wildlife and home life.

“When I moved to Wasilla in 1963, George was an active citizen and popular teacher,
involved in community affairs and politics. One of my daughter’s most vivid high school memories is of listening to Mr. Harbeson read aloud John Steinbeck’s 
The Red Pony, and my son-in-law still recalls Mr. Harbeson’s explanation of how the mill rate works. …”
— From the Introduction by Katie Hurley, Chief Clerk to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.

book butcher baker

Butcher, Baker: A True Account of a Serial Murderer by Walter Gilmour and Leland Hale. (1991)

Fair Game: The Definitive Account of the Crimes of Alaska Serial Killer Robert Hansen by Bernard Duclos. (2013)

These two books are about serial killer Robert Hansen whose victims were taken to a remote part of the Mat-Su Valley and murdered.

book tom brennan

Murder at 40 Below (2001) and Cold Crime (2005) by Tom Brennan.

book kizzia

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia (2013).

This book is very well done but painful to read. The Hale family settled in the Mat-Su Valley after they left their homestead in the Wrangell-St. Elias area.

“When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey music, but their true story ran dark and deep. Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever-more volatile battle over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin. As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider. And as his fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.”

book ashley dickerson

Delayed Justice for Sale by M. Ashley Dickerson (1998).

This is a memoir by longtime Alaskan attorney and Wasilla resident M. Ashley Dickerson, who was one of the first Black women attorneys in the U.S.

Her obituary:

Mahala Ashley Dickerson, Alaska’s first black lawyer, died Monday at
her family homestead in Wasilla after a short illness. She was 94.

Dickerson, who was raised in the South before the era of civil rights,
blazed a trail for black women in the world of law. Aside from her
accomplishments in Alaska, she became the first female attorney in her
home state of Alabama in 1948 and the second black woman admitted to
the bar in Indiana in 1951. She was also the first black homesteader
in the Mat-Su region of Alaska.

Attorney Rex Butler, whom Dickerson persuaded to come to Anchorage,
said, “I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, `Rex, you
see those mountains out there?’ He said, `Those mountains are littered
with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson.”’

Dickerson had a reputation as an advocate for the poor and
underprivileged. She argued many cases involving racial and gender
discrimination, taking on the Anchorage Police Department and the
University of Alaska, among other institutions.

“In my life, I didn’t have but two things to do. Those were to stay
black and to die. I’m just not afraid to fight somebody big,” she told
the Anchorage Daily News in 1984, when, at age 71, she was still
working 12-hour days at her law office. “Whenever there’s somebody
being mistreated, if they want me, I’ll help them.”

Dickerson grew up in Alabama on a plantation owned by her father. She
attended a private school, Miss White’s School, where she began a
lifelong friendship with Rosa Parks, who would become a hero of the
civil rights movement.

Dickerson graduated from Fisk University in 1935, married Henry
Dickerson and had triplets, Alfred, John and Chris. She later
divorced, and when the boys were 6, she went to Howard University
School of Law, becoming one of four women to graduate in her class of
`36. After working as an attorney in Alabama and Indiana, she moved to
Alaska with her sons, where she homesteaded.

“I didn’t know a single person, and there were very few black people
in Alaska then, but everyone welcomed me, white and black alike,” she
said in a 2001 interview.

Dickerson opened her law practice in Anchorage in 1959, and her name
is still on the answering machine, along with that of her long-time
law partner, Johnny Gibbons. In 1995, she was awarded the Margaret
Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor also given to
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day
O’Connor, a justice of the nation’s top court who has since retired.

Dickerson wrote a book about her life, “Delayed Justice for Sale,” in
1998. She continued to practice law until she was 91.

In addition to encouraging Butler to practice in Anchorage, she was a
mentor to many other young attorneys, Butler said.

Dickerson often took clients who didn’t have the means to pay, said
Leroy Barker, the historian for the Alaska State Bar Association, who
practiced law with Dickerson in the 1960s.

“I don’t think anybody thought of her as a black woman lawyer; she was
just a lawyer,” he said. “I think she worked very hard to get where
she was, and she was a strong personality.”

Joshua Wright, an Anchorage dentist, was a friend of Dickerson from
the time she moved to Alaska. He remembered her as “a fighter.”

“When she was younger, oh, God, when she got on a roll, you better
clear out the room,” he said, laughing.

He and his wife visited Dickerson over the weekend. She’d been lucid
until a stroke a few weeks ago that left her without speech, he said.
She responded to them in the room, he said, and when they left, she
smiled and closed her eyes.

“That’s our lasting picture of her,” he said.

Dickerson’s legacy will be the way she overcame obstacles, giving back
to the community, said Celeste Hodge, former local head of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now
runs Mayor Mark Begich’s office of equal opportunity.

“Once you know her story, especially as an African-American woman, you
know that you are able to achieve anything,” Hodge said.

Dickerson will be buried on her land near her son, Alfred, who died in
1960. Sons John and Chris planned to attend a private Quaker graveside
service Wednesday. A memorial will be held at a later date.


And here are two history books about the Matanuska Colony:

book colony

book colony two