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In a Time of Crisis, Her Voice Was the One That Galvanized Alaska

Chance would soon be on the air, her station powered initially by emergency generators. She tried to vet information before going live with it, and passed on pleas and updates from family members looking for loved ones. Over the next three days, the state experienced 52 separate aftershocks, 11 of them greater than 6 on the Richter scale. Through it all, while racing back and forth to take care of her family, she remained calm. She understood, better than most of those around her, that mass hysteria would lead to mayhem. She asked grocers to open their stores, and cautioned people against hoarding. “I was responsible for reassuring them that the world had not come to an end,” she said later.

Mooallem does a nice job of showing the domino of damage in cinematic slow motion — the crevasses opening in city streets, the land slinking and sliding, the indiscriminate collapse of homes of both the rich and the poor. And he’s astute in explaining the science: the crust of the Pacific Plate pushing under the North American Plate. It’s no exaggeration to say that Anchorage was nearly unrecognizable after the quake.

He also brings to life a half-dozen or so ordinary people who acted in extraordinary ways. The old saying of how women feel about Alaska men — the odds are good, but the goods are odd — certainly applied. But these oddballs were heroic, each in his own way. There was a psychology professor, Bill Davis, who marshaled the volunteers of his Alaska Rescue Group into action. A theater director, Frank Brink, was determined to stage “Our Town” soon after the disaster, to prove that life and storytelling go on. A sociologist, Enrico Quarantelli, doggedly documented human behavior under extreme duress. And Alaska’s first governor, William A. Egan (no relation), proved as steady as Genie Chance.

But this is a very strange book. The big land of Alaska and the outsize people who inhabit it have long inspired some terrific tomes — Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” The main problem with “This Is Chance!” is that it fails to rise to the drama of the event. That would be fine if the character drama played out in a satisfying way. But here it comes up short as well. The book moves about in time, jumping ahead and then back again. It’s one thing to leap off the chronological ladder, quite another to leave the reader confused or — worse — caring less about people in the story.

Our hero fades and then disappears rather suddenly, with many pages still left in the book. At that point, the author appears, a “wry and sometimes laconic-seeming writer with an off-kilter jaw,” as Mooallem writes about himself. This is trouble, and things go downhill from there. All due respect to my fellow scribe, a bright and resourceful writer, but I wanted more of Genie Chance and less of her chronicler.

Chance divorced the abusive husband, had a good run at state politics, but then suffered illness and family tragedy at a relatively young age. She got dementia and died at 64, in 1998, at the Juneau Pioneer Home. She left behind many recordings, not just of the days when she was a lifeline through the airwaves, but of her experiences as a true pioneer in a state where that tag is too easily thrown around. The quake certainly has its place in history. This remarkable woman deserves her own.

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