Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon
by Mary Albanese
Paperback: 216 pages, April 1, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-1935347170
The Alaskan wilderness seems an unlikely place to thrive, but former geologist and explorer Mary Albanese did that and more as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Her geological studies required her to explore the unforgiving wilds of the 49th state in the name of cartography. As a member of a select group of geologists and environmental scientists, Albanese was part of a massive undertaking—mapping the state’s untamed regions.
Albanese doesn’t make light of her personal and professional journey. She recalls the dreams she had as a young girl, called by some unknown force to travel to Alaska. It would take her years to accomplish this goal. As an undergraduate with a teaching degree, she discovers that her passion for education had diminished; a noticeable absence of jobs was a problem, as well. Still the feeling of traveling West persisted. Albanese finally found a solution—applying to graduate school in Alaska. Her challenges in the program—made even worse by her lack of experience in certain subjects—seem to parallel the physical difficulties she encountered living in such an extreme climate. She works her way through the graduate program, in one of the most difficult fields in one of the most unlivable environments possible, with a combination of dogged determination and hard work. Throughout the book, Albanese’s perseverance is obvious. The reader gets the feeling that you have to want to be in Alaska. The land is perfectly content to remain isolated and wild—for someone to live here, you have to be prepared to face the challenges this environment throws at you head-on, and prove your worth. And Albanese does.
Midnight Sun, Arctic Moon is as much an ode to the Alaskan wilderness as it is a memoir. Albanese writes about the untamed natural beauty of the place—much of which was uninhabited at the time (1970’s) and remains largely unchartered territory today—and the extreme climate she had to endure in the name of earning her degree. Albanese comes face-to-face with a grizzly, loses friends to mountain climbing accidents, and spends weeks at camp, gathering rock samples, researching the rough terrain and soil of the place, and trying to survive.
Yet it’s not all wild beasts, below-zero temperatures, and 24 hours of sunlight, as most preconceived notions of Alaska would lead you to believe. Albanese builds a life here, creating a family of sorts, first with her fellow graduate students, particularly with the few other women in her program as geology was a largely male-dominated field, and building a family for real with her future husband, fellow geologist Tom Albanese, and their two adopted daughters. These young explorers lived, worked, played, and loved in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, yet lived to tell the tale (most of them, anyway). Albanese and her family lived in Alaska for ten years, first in Fairbanks and later in the state capital of Juneau, which she says are as different in environment as two cities could possibly be.
Albanese’s story is that of triumph over what could easily be impossible odds. She proved herself professionally, earning respect from her male peers in a very competitive field, and tested her limits every step of the way. It would be easy to imagine Albanese saying to herself, “I’ve done this; I wonder what else I can do?” In the last few pages of the book, she tells us. She’s carved out a life as a wife, mother, artist, writer, adoption advocate, and traveler. While she may have left the wilderness behind, Albanese’s path shows us that she’s still remained true to her curious, inquisitive, and creative nature.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com