Skip to main content

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

A poet returns to Alaska

Flooding in May 2009 damaged the old customs house.

Ross McDermott

Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass is a grueling hike in any circumstances, but in 1897, 54-year-old Anna Malm carried an 80-pound wooden washing machine over the pass on her back. She and her husband, Abe, had emigrated from Finland and were heading to the Klondike to seek their fortune in gold. Instead, they settled in Eagle, Alaska, where she opened Anna Malm’s Arctic Laundry, Alaska’s first laundry.

This May, record high temperatures caused the Yukon River to overflow its banks and sent chunks of ice the size of houses careening through Eagle. The ice jam knocked buildings off their foundations, crushed retaining walls and scattered cars and trucks as if they were mere children’s toys. The village where Anna and Abe are buried saw the waters rise 51 feet above normal levels.

Ted Genoways (front) with Andy Bassich (left) and Jesse Dukes (right) survey the Yukon River. Ross McDermott

Eagle is a village of only 200 people, and its destruction hardly made national headlines. Yet, 3,000 miles away in Virginia, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways, was devastated.

It was an accident that first acquainted Genoways (Grad ’99) with Eagle in 1996, when he was 22. While on a road trip through Alaska, he collided with a moose—narrowly escaping serious injury. “I had a strange rug burn on my forehead from where the moose brushed me when it went through the windshield. I got a sort of Brillo pad treatment from the coarse fur.” Even the accident scene kindled lyrical urges in Genoways, an emerging poet. “I was covered in shards of glass and moose fur. And I remember, all the glass was just glittering in the moonlight, and I had this sense of otherworldly awe that I hadn’t just died.”

Inhabitants of Eagle consider what is left of their town. Ross McDermott

While his car was being fixed, Genoways explored Eagle, which was founded during the 1897 gold rush and made famous by John McPhee in his bestselling 1977 book Coming into the Country. Genoways toured the historic customs house—the place where both Jack London and poet Robert Service signed their entrance papers to Alaska. “In the customs house, there was a giant wooden washing machine,” says Genoways.

It was the same washing machine that Anna Malm had carried to Eagle all those years ago. To Genoways, Anna’s washing machine revealed a tough-minded, sensible pioneer spirit, unlike the gold fever that had gripped so many of the early inhabitants of Eagle. “Abe was the one with gold fever—she [Anna] was willing to see what was at the end of his imagined rainbow, but this insistence on bringing the washing machine seemed like an understanding that even if he didn’t find gold, she was bringing along a livelihood.”

An aerial view of ice left by the flood among several damaged buildings. Ross McDermott

Genoways began writing poems, and 12 years later, completed a book, Anna, Washing. The poems tell the story of Anna and Abe’s life; she had been his nanny when his father left him, then married him when he came of age. Abe never found much gold in Alaska, and it was Anna’s washing business that supported the couple. In one poem, Anna realizes how Abe must have resented the machine:

It weighs close to eighty pounds,
but more than that, the weight Abe could not carry
was the backbreaking burden of
my doubt.
He felt bent and belittled by my lack
of faith, my fear his claims wouldn’t pan out.

The town of Eagle and the fortitude of the people who have settled there over the past 100 years inspired Genoways’ work, so when Eagle was flooded, he went back to visit his injured muse. The first thing Genoways saw when he returned was the old customs house building. The flood water had lifted it off its foundation and river ice had slammed into it, breaking it into three sections and pushing it some 30 feet up the riverbank.

A view of the Yukon River valley from land where houses once stood. Ross McDermott

Genoways spent days talking to Eagle residents who had lost homes and businesses. He heard the story of Don Mann, a businessman from Oklahoma, who had wanted to move back to Alaska since he worked on oil rigs in the 1960s. Mann built his retirement home in Eagle—only to be trapped in that same home as the water rose. Andy Bassich lost several buildings he had hand built, but was able to save all but one of the 25 sled dogs that provide him with his living. Jean Turner of the Eagle Historical Society organized a fire brigade to save artifacts from the customs house—including Anna’s washing machine—even as her own home was spun around by the ice.

“The people we’ve met are absolutely as worthy of poems as Anna or Abe,” says Genoways. “There’s always something incredibly hard about living in Eagle. That’s really what the story is, that there are a bunch of people who’ve chosen a more difficult way—but in their view, a more enriching way—to live. It’s daunting, but it’s also kind of humbling to have the opportunity to try to capture something of that spirit.”


Studio 360 radio story about Genoways’ return to Eagle

Heir Apparent of Ink

Ted Genoways and the VQR

Ted Genoways became the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2003. Since then, the VQR has received three National Magazine Awards—for general excellence, fiction and single-topic issue—and 15 nominations from the American Society of Magazine Editors. This year, it won the Utne Independent Press Awards prize for general excellence.

The VQR was the brainchild of UVA president Edwin Alderman, who conceived of it as “an organ of liberal opinion … solidly based, thoughtfully and wisely managed and controlled, not seeking to give news, but to become a great serious publication wherein shall be reflected the calm thought of the best men.” Since its inaugural issue in 1925, the VQR has published essays, fiction and poems by writers as illustrious and diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Penn Warren.

Since taking the helm, Genoways has continued the VQR’s tradition of deeply considered and socially relevant journalism, while bringing an edgy visual sensibility to the fore: the newer issues of VQR feature photography, art, comics and even pullout posters. “The magazine is so (comparatively) heavily designed [because] … we’re a bunch of booklovers, typophiles and out-and-out design nerds,” says Genoways.

While he was a graduate student, Genoways approached revered VQR editor Staige Blackford (Col ’52) about becoming an intern and was turned down. The rejection inspired him to collaborate with poet and faculty member Lisa Russ Spaar (Col ’78, Grad ’82) to found the literary magazine Meridian, which continues to be published semiannually by student editors in UVA’s Creative Writing Program.

Genoways is the author of two books of poetry and the nonfiction book Walt Whitman and the Civil War.