Kachemak Country Publications: Homer, Alaska
First publication by Doubleday, Doran & Co (1938)
Fog on the Mountain is a very interesting little mystery novel for a number of reasons, perhaps the least of which is its plot! It tells of the investigations by anthropologist Wallace Howard into the mysterious deaths of several colorful characters in and around Petrovnia, Alaska, a fictional frontier town on Kachemak Bay, Alaska. While gathering data for an ethnographic study of Pacific Eskimo (now we would probably refer to these indigenous peoples as “Aleuts”) life ways in the Depression Era Alaskan back country, the young Dr. Howard is plunged into a spiraling cycle of violence that begins with the death of Chief Totemoff, a respected elder with shadings of shamanistic powers. What is first believed to be an accident soon proves to be a vicious murder, with the victim’s son-in-law the chief suspect. Howard’s friendship for the murdered man and his belief that the son-in-law is innocent of the charge gives the inquisitive anthropologist all the urging he needs to investigate the killing on his own. In so doing, he uncovers some of the dirty little secrets of this little town—including its preference for vigilante justice over the courtroom version. There are a seemingly endless array of motives for the murder—plus two more killings that follow hard on the heels of the slain chief–including stolen Aleut shamanistic artifacts, the poaching of sea otters, illegal fishing, and bootleg liquor. But are these motives or merely red herrings? Howard uses his scholarly abilities to untangle the web of clues and in doing faces certain death as the ruthless killer leaves him stranded on a tiny islet in Kachemak Bay that is fast becoming inundated by the rising tide.
The plot of Fog on the Mountain is fairly interesting and the novel’s characters range from complex and colorful (Chief Totemoff and his daughter, Matrona, for instance) to the stiff and somewhat bland (our hero, Wallace Howard!). But the novel includes some wonderful ethnographic insights—both of the indigenous Aleuts and the white society of “frontier” Alaska in the 1930s. These latter strengths are due to the talents and experiences of the author, Frederica de Laguna. This incredible woman was one of the true pioneers of American anthropology, studying under the legendary Franz Boas and receiving her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1933 She was a contemporary and colleague of Margaret Mead’s and in fact, shared with Dr. Mead in 1975, the honor of being the first female anthropologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She was affiliated with the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania from the early 1930s—when she led five research expeditions in Alaska—to her death in 2004, just three days after her 98th birthday. Her fieldwork continued in the decades following the 1930s as she produced groundbreaking archaeological studies on the Athabascan, Eyak, Chugach and Tlingit peoples. Her teaching career spanned almost 40 years at Bryn Mawr College, and even after her retirement in 1975 she continued to write and lecture. Her greatest honor may have been the invitation extended to her in the 1990s by the Yakutat Tlingit to join them in a potlatch to thank “Grandmother Freddy” for her friendship, her sensitivity to the Tlingit culture, and her scholarship “which has become a priceless record of the past and a source of inspiration for the future.”
Federica de Laguna wrote one other mystery, also set in Alaska, entitled The Arrow Points at Murder. I haven’t read this novel, and after finding a copy on Amaon.com, priced at $150, it may be quite some time before I do!
I give Fog on the Mountain four trowels, not because the novel itself is so great, but because the author was truly a great pioneer of American anthropology and archaeology.