Comparing Michael Chabon’s Sitka, Alaska to Reality

“This is not Sitka! How am I supposed to blog about you??” This is my second attempt at reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and the second attempt is going about as well as the first so far. After living part of a summer in Sitka I picked up Chabon’s book thinking I might recognize locations described in the novel. Unfortunately, I so disliked the main character that I gave up fairly quickly. Realizing a return trip to Sitka might be just the incentive I need, I thought I’d give the book a second shot.

 Chabon’s book takes place in a Sitka created by an alternate history. During World War II a proposal was put forth to invite the Jewish people to create a homeland in Sitka. According to Chabon, it was because the United States couldn’t convince anybody else to move to the Alaskan territory. If this was the real reason, even the Jews refused to accept the invitation, as this proposal was never realized. But what if it had been? This is the Sitka of Chabon’s novel.

Chabon’s Sitka is a large city with a population of millions. He describes it as dank, having a dark underbelly of crime, gangs, and drugs, and Yiddish is the overall language of choice. It’s much like if New York City had only Jewish refugees and had been picked up and dropped on the Alaska coastline. It is so far from the reality of current day Sitka that there really are no similarities.

Sitka, AK

In reality, Sitka is a small town, developed due to the fishing industry. The downtown is a centrally located cute 3-block-long street of shops that cater to locals and summer tourists alike. There is a lovely little bookstore, several local arts and crafts galleries, and a couple eateries. There is no “murky streetlight” here. The air is fresh, blowing in off the open water. Everywhere in Sitka feels well lit by natural light. All the downtown businesses have large seaward facing windows and the best view possible- yes, everyone of them you’d swear the view was better than the last. The city library has wonderful study spaces, but I don’t know if I’d get any work done because I’d just stare out the windows the whole day! The Pub sits on a second story and looks out at the harbor. It’s the most well lit pub I know and has the best view of any I’ve been in.

Sitka's St. Michael's Orthodox Church
Sitka’s St. Michael’s Orthodox Church

Also, there is not even one synagogue in Sitka. If you google Sitka Jewish community all the results are about the book. So I can’t even tell you if any Jews even live in Sitka. The middle of downtown, however, is dominated by St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church with its singularly identifiable spire that can be seen from any point in downtown.

At the heart of Chabon’s Sitka is Detective Landsman, a depressed man who splits his time between detective work and drinking alone. The novel is written in present tense so each move Landsman makes is noted as if he is moving just in front of you. To me this is frustrating because I don’t want a play-by-play, I just want to know what happened! Due to the writing style, you only learn about Landsman’s background in pieces through his discussions with other characters and his own lonely thoughts. He is slowly beginning to appear a little more sympathetic a character than I at first thought.

One of the things you learn about Landsman is that he has a strong dislike for the game of Chess, thanks to his father. While there is no seedy hotel lounge like the one where Detective Landsman’s father played Chess with other shifty old men, there are some nice coffee shops that invite you to set up your laptop and stay awhile. I have yet to see anybody playing Chess in any of them, however, the Highliner coffee shop has one table with a checker board top, so I suppose you could play there if you wanted. Mostly I go for the drinks and pastries. With photos of fishing vessels on the walls, low music emanating from somewhere, and a warm mug between your fingers, it really has a cozy atmosphere.

 While Landsman and his sidekick Berko visit dark and certainly suspicious places to eat, the real Sitka actually maintains a few restaurants worth a visit. Many of Sika’s restaurants function as multi-ethnic places. That’s life in a small town when you want food variety I guess. One has Mexican and Italian, another has Filipino and Paninis, and burgers for good measure. The Pub has standard pub fare, but the fries are worth it. A new pizza and pub moved into town recently, so Sitka may now see an upswing in its pizza game as the eateries compete. The most notable restaurant of all, however, is the Larkspur.

The Larkspur

The Larkspur is a small, but gourmet eatery that changes its menu daily depending on the availability of stock and the whim of the cook. They don’t take reservations, so make sure to arrive early. The quaint white house-like building is also shared by the local Sitka radio station. The back of the restaurant has a window to the studio room and the string instruments wall decor all so suggest a partnership. The rest of the decor and furniture is eclectic. A hodgepodge of styles from retro to classic to even metal office chairs. All together the effect is comfortable and homey. There’s even a small bookshelf in the corner with games and books, inviting you to stay a while. We ate Sunday Brunch at Larkspur this time and I had a delicious stack of banana buttermilk pancakes. Though I’d be hard pressed to say it was better than the blueberry cinnamon roll we all shared!

Outside of shopping, and eating, there’s definitely more constructive things to do in Sitka besides drugs and violence. It’s a great community to get outdoors. There’s several good nature trails that have been constructed for day hikes if you’ve brought your hiking boots (or Xratufs- have you seen the new designs for women? I totally want a new pair!). And if you visit Southeast Alaska you really shouldn’t be without your hiking gear anyway!

Mosquito Cove Trail

During this trip we walked the Mosquito Cove Trail, a well maintained forest path that follows the shoreline and then curves inward to loop back around. We were lucky enough to watch some whales playing off shore before we got too far!
If you do have your boots, but hiking isn’t really your speed, and you can find a boat, you can also spend your days on the water and perhaps catch your own fish dinner! There’s nothing better than relaxing on board when the water is glassy still and the sea animals are feeling obliging enough to put on a show.

Sitka’s Crescent Harbor

So you see, there really aren’t any similarities between Chabon’s alternate Sitka and the one of the current time stream. If I ever figure out how to blog about it, I’ll let you know.

Have you ever visited a place and found it very unlike how you imagined it? What were you basing your assumptions on? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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  • Love your blog Sara. Wish we had it when we visited Sitka many years ago, but anyway, you brought back good memories.Hope you will do one soon about New York or Washington DC.

    If you are frustrated with “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” I would suggest you try “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon.

    • Thank you! I gave up on The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for a second time, unfortunately, but in favor of books related to New York and Washington D.C.! New posts are currently in the works!

  • Hi Elizabeth,

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog (goodness knows how or where?! 🙂 ) and I loved reading your thoughts on Sitka! Plus I’ve the “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” sitting on my Goodreads shelf forever… I didn’t even know it’s set in “fictional” Sitka!!

    We took the Inside Passage ferries from Vancouver Island to Haines last year and totally wished we’d actually gotten off the ferries and explored the various ports. Southeast Alaska just looked incredible!! We now want to return and actually explore SEA for a few weeks and Sitka would definitely be on our itinerary.

    Btw, my husband just (re-)read “Alaska” by Michener, and loved it. Have you read that? It’s such a big, fat book that I haven’t quite mustered the “courage” to tackle it, haha. 🙂

    Ps: I also had a look at your PEI and Anne post, I sooooo want to go to!!!! Definitely on the books for our next big Alaska/Canada trip! 🙂

    • Hi! Welcome to the blog! I haven’t tackled Michener’s Alaska either actually! I do hope you’ll get back to SE Alaska, it’s a beautiful place and the port cities are fun to explore. If you need any advice for your trip, drop me a note! Also, definitely visit PEI! I loved it there!!