Jack De Yonge's "Boom Town Boy" is the veteran Northwest journalist's memoir of growing up in an exceedingly wild and woolly Fairbanks, Alaska.
‘Boom Town Boy’
by Jack De Yonge
Epicenter Press, 255 pp., $14.95
Jack De Yonge recalls a moment in his childhood when he came “as close to exaltation as ever I would feel, a boy on the edge of a vast wilderness still long on animals and fish and short on people.”
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But as Fairbanks, Alaska, became long on people, De Yonge’s childhood activities took place more and more amid adult shenanigans that are usually considered less than exalted.
In “Boom Town Boy: Coming of Age on Alaska’s Lost Frontier,” De Yonge, a veteran journalist whose career included stints at the Fairbanks News-Miner, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, looks back on his early days in Fairbanks with “amused fondness,” describing standard American boyhood activities such as music lessons, baseball and family outings, all against a backdrop of one hell-raising town.
From the moment he slid forth from his mother, who delivered when startled by a celebratory dynamite blast on July 4, 1934, De Yonge lived among rampant prostitution, drunkenness, open gambling, homophobia, pedophilia and violence of all sorts. Racism, he further notes, was embedded in the culture of “The Greatest Generation.”
De Yonge survived all this with a droll wit, sympathy for the underdog and a distrust of “those in power and those with money.” That point of view slips into the book in occasional jabs at the Republican Party and organized religion.
He presents his memoir in snippets, some describing events in Alaskan history, some covering boy adventures and explorations of Fairbanks’ unsavory corners, as the city went from its post gold-rush slumber to the boom brought on by World War II.
Some of the vignettes end too abruptly, and the book has an unfinished feel about it; it needs another chapter to explain how that hard-to-manage boy who left Alaska after his sophomore year in high school became the accomplished man who ended up as a newspaperman, educator, environmental activist and political consultant in Washington state.
What the book does best is bring alive Alaska in the 1930s and ’40s, when rough and tumble Fairbanks existed as “a time warp … where a bit of the Nineteenth Century dangled into the Twentieth Century.”
John B. Saul is a former editor
at The Seattle Times.