Trading Greenwood, South Carolina for the remote Alaskan village of Venetie, then medical student J. Michael Holloway, along with his brother, Ted and friend Volk, took a road trip to The Last Frontier in 1961.
After being diverted from their original path, the group travels to Venetie and meets the Gwich’in storyteller and former medicine man Johnny Frank and his wife, Sarah. Over the book’s 208 page length, Holloway grows close to the elders, listening to Johnny’s stories and welcoming Sarah’s hospitality.
All that Holloway and his companions saw along the way is documented in his memoir, “Dreaming Bears.” Written with a captivating and frank wisdom, the adopted grandson of the Franks pulls no punches in his descriptions.
In Holloway’s eyes, the natural world and people alike are beautiful. He gives the most time to describing, “waves of foothills and smaller mountains rolling northward to the majestic Brooks Range,” and Johnny and Sarah, saying of Sarah that, “A scarf framed her oval face exposing iron-gray hair above a slightly wrinkled forehead.” Not a word is wasted.
This simple, but eloquent, diction lets the story breathe. And breathe it does. Johnny and Sarah Frank and Mike Holloway are fully realized. Holloway’s reverence for the Franks and Nature alike is evident.
Thanks to a beautiful set of color photographs, the reader can see that Holloway did his surroundings and companions justice. Reading how Holloway grew from a simple traveler to the “Messenger” of the Gwich’in people, with the help and patient wisdom and hospitality of Johnny and Sarah Frank, makes the story come to life.
On the downside, Holloway doesn’t step out of his writing comfort zone. “Dreaming Bears” falls into the “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” rhythm, which gets monotonous. Thankfully, the source material is strong enough that the intermittent monotony doesn’t get overbearing.
You won’t find a more captivating, and ultimately poignant, memoir about Alaska and its northernmost people anywhere else. While the writing can become stale, the story keeps things fresh. It’s easy to get wrapped up in this tale and, for the experience, there’s not a better Alaskan book to spend your time on.
Title: “Dreaming Bears”
Author: J. Michael Holloway
Publisher: Epicenter Press
Publish Date: May 1, 2014
Rating: 4 out of 5