Who Can You Rely On When Disaster Strikes?

Jon Mooallem's "This Is Chance!" is a surprisingly uplifting history of the devastating 1964 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska

Road crumbling into chunks
Damage from a different, later earthquake in Alaska. (Photo by Alaska DOT & PF)

Jon Mooallem’s This is Chance! is disaster lit for people who still have faith in humanity. In a time when most news stories seem like they were beamed in from a dystopian YA novel, it can sound unreasonable to recommend a book about a major natural disaster—in this case, the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964—to offer solace. However, This is Chance! is one of the most optimistic books I’ve read in a long time, and reading it during the pandemic offered me comfort beyond anything I could get from a set of statistics. 

The nonfiction book, now out in paperback, is set in the blossoming metropolis that was Anchorage, Alaska in the 1960s. It follows Genie Chance, a news reporter who became the voice of Alaska to the outside world as she covered the aftermath of the disaster over the radio. Ultimately, though, Mooallem’s book isn’t just about the second largest earthquake ever recorded, but about the real people who lived through it and the community they built together. Throughout the book, Mooallem expertly weaves in the Thornton Wilder play Our Town; Anchorage was preparing for a local theater production when the earthquake hit, but the play also speaks to themes of both community and mortality. 

As someone who grew up, and currently resides, in Anchorage, I was excited to talk to Mooallem over the phone about a book that captures the culture and community of Anchorage more than any other book I’ve read.

McKayla Coyle: In the book, you talk about how disasters happen all over the world and people tend to react in the same way, which is with rationality and selflessness. You even point out that in response to disaster, “Anchorage was just like every other city in America.” Obviously this book has to be set in Alaska because it’s about the Great Alaskan Earthquake, but is there anything else about this particular setting that was especially useful or inspiring to you as you were writing this book?

Jon Mooallem: So the first thing is to clarify that it’s absolutely true that the response in Anchorage was typical of other communities in the world. But it’s typical only in the broadest sense: that people helped one another. People were cooperative and industrious and they managed to solve problems for themselves. However, Anchorage’s response to the quake is still 100% ripped through with the specific idiosyncrasies and character of Alaska. It’s the Alaskan version of that phenomenon. In general, when there’s a disaster in the community, people will rush in to help. In Alaska, some of them showed up with their own bulldozers, which is not something that’s going to happen in Manhattan. To me the first, most basic thing is to clarify that point. 

What drew me to this story originally was the character of Anchorage at the time. The community of Anchorage was in this very particular moment in its history where it was really starting to feel confident and proud of itself, it was starting to feel like a real place in the world. The irony that this moment was when the buildings that they were so proud of were randomly knocked down by this disaster—the cruelty of that was really poignant to me. It would’ve been a completely different story in a different place. No one worried after 9/11 that Manhattan was going to go away, but there were legitimate fears about Anchorage disappearing after the quake. So, in my mind the details and the emotional weight of the story is absolutely specific to it being an Alaskan story.

No one worried after 9/11 that Manhattan was going to go away, but there were legitimate fears about Anchorage disappearing after the quake.

MC:  I loved the details about how excited everyone in Anchorage was to have a JC Penney building. When I was in high school, we got an Olive Garden and there was like a one month wait to get a table there for literally the first six months. Things like that feel very special up here.

JM: That’s actually interesting to hear because Anchorage is obviously such a different place now than it was in ’64, right? But it doesn’t surprise me that there’s still an energy of always trying to be a little bit bigger and a little more like other places. I related to that on a personal level too, I go through the world thinking, “I think I’m pretty good, am I good?” So this whole idea that there’s always this force that’s waiting to pummel you, I can relate to that.

MC: Definitely. So I read another piece that you wrote about Alaska in The New York Times about a kayaking accident with your friends, and in that piece you talk about looking for meaning in disaster and there’s a question of whether there’s ever meaning in disaster. With This Is Chance!, did it feel like you were creating meaning in the disaster of the ’64 earthquake just by writing about it? Did you feel like you found any meaning?

JM: The thing I was talking about in that kayaking piece was that the randomness of things happening is inarguable. You can’t really pick apart questions like, “Why did a tree fall on my friend?” or “Why was there an earthquake?” I was resisting having any kind of mystical, magical-thinking answer to that, and instead I was just accepting that this is the world: it’s dangerous and erratic. That doesn’t mean that there’s no duty or meaning to be found in the aftermath of those events though, right? Specifically in the way people behave and respond. 

I hadn’t thought of it like that, but of course when you spend time writing about something, you’re giving it a shape and therefore you’re leading it towards meaning. I wouldn’t say I was giving it meaning, but I would say I was highlighting possible meanings. I think that’s what we have to do just to survive. We have to be able to tell ourselves a story about what we’re living through. I think I’m feeling that right now, a year plus into the pandemic. I’m just beginning to have a little bit of perspective on what the whole thing has been like, to even begin to think of it in terms of a story. 

I think that’s what we have to do just to survive. We have to be able to tell ourselves a story about what we’re living through.

MC: The idea that structure creates meaning, and the question of whether writing confers importance were things I was thinking about a lot while I was reading this. I didn’t know much about the earthquake before I read this book, and I live in Alaska. I had never heard of Genie Chance, and I hadn’t even considered that the earthquake caused damage in Alaska outside of Anchorage. You don’t think about the fact that you’re only hearing one story. 

JM: That was actually something that really worried me while I was writing this book. It feels awesome that now people know about Genie Chance because I found her junk in a basement and wrote a book about her. But at the same time, there’s a cosmic unfairness. The idea that—in addition to her story being a pretty incredible story—the reason why this book hangs in large part on her story was because she was the one whose stuff I had access to. Even she knew that her story was just one story that could be told about the disaster. That’s what I was thinking about when you were talking about writing giving things this weight, or this emphasis, is how that doesn’t seem fair to me. The best I could do to remedy that is to say explicitly in the book, “There are other stories that someone else might tell or that no one will ever be able to tell, so let’s pause and keep that in our heads.” I guess you could say that telling the story of a woman from that time is corrective to the record, but it only goes a tiny step beyond. The unfairness of it still seems to outweigh the good. 

MC: Related to that, you focus a lot on the mortality of the people that you’re writing about, but by writing about them you’re immortalizing them in a way. Did you ever felt like you were bringing people back from the dead, or rescuing them from death, or anything along those lines?

JM: The problem is there’s truth to that, but the words we use to talk about it are so overblown. I’m clearly not immortalizing anyone, my book could be out of print next year. But there’s something real that’s happening, and I don’t want to sound too woo-woo, but I’ve got to believe there’s something positive if just one other person in the world knows these peoples’ names after all this time. That seems good, just in a small way. 

I never really thought of it as immortalizing them. To me, the takeaway wasn’t, “Look at this person.” It wasn’t about the individual people. It was this overwhelming sense of “My lord, there’s so many people!” They all have these stories, and they all come and go. I guess it sounds a little sappy when you put it like that, but there’s a visceral experience when you actually realize that there are so many people with their own stories and lives. We walk around thinking we’re the protagonists of our own life—and we are—but the stories of our lives are not that indispensable in the long run. I don’t mean that as a bummer, I just think that’s what it is. 

MC: That was something I really liked about the Our Town strand in the book. The moments when you were jumping between first introducing someone and then being like, “And then a year later he would be dead and there’d be a plaque for him right next to where he’s standing right now,” really hit me. There’s transiency but there’s also repetition. 

We walk around thinking we’re the protagonists of our own life—and we are—but the stories of our lives are not that indispensable in the long run.

JM: I love that you had that response, because that was sincerely what it felt like to work on the book. I had so many documents, it was absurd. For something that happened 50-some-odd years ago, the resolution at which these stories were preserved was like magic. I was spending all my time within those three days. I’d spend hours a day obsessing over the smallest details about what a particular person did on one day, and then I would think “I should Google this guy,” and without fail the first thing I’d find was an obituary. That’s not a perspective that we walk around with in daily life. 

I think there’s something parallel to this in the story of the earthquake. It’s a reminder that the way you see the world around you is pretty limited, and that the earth can move and all these shops on Fourth Avenue can drop underground. That’s not in your vocabulary of possibilities as you just make your way through the world. You’re not conscious of that—why would you be? But it’s kind of incredible, and things start to happen when your life becomes imbued with the realization of these possibilities. 

That’s the whole point of Our Town, so it made sense to me to write the book like this. It just seemed like the natural way to tell the story if you were talking to a friend. If I were to tell you, “There was this guy Bill Davis and he was a kind of hobbyist mountaineer, he ended up running the search and rescue thing,” then your next question would be, “Did you talk to him?” and I’d say, “Yeah I talked to him, he was 80-something years old and he died a year after I talked to him. He never got to see the book.” I’m just being honest, but it changes the story to know all that. 

MC: So we’ve been talking about the characters a lot—I’m gonna call them characters, they’re obviously real people, but they carry a particularly large amount of weight in this book. There are parts where you talk about how the city has lost all familiarity, and that it’s been “reduced to a wilderness.” In that space, the people of Anchorage aren’t just the heroes, they become the setting of the book, too. I think that’s why this book rang so true to Anchorage for me, because you focus so heavily on the personalities and the anecdotes and the weird people who live here. That felt more real than just writing, “Oh, there’s a lot of trees and there’s bears sometimes,” you know what I mean? I was wondering how it’s different to lean primarily on people to create your setting rather than leaning on a physical environment?

JM: That’s a really cool way to think of it. I think in the book I say something about how the people became this kind of alternate infrastructure, but you’re right, “setting” is a much more literary way to think about it. I do think that the physical space and the community are related. 

That’s the upshot of the book: you hold onto everyone, because that’s what keeps you from sliding off the face of this moving earth.

I think these people who were in Anchorage at the time really did see themselves as mid-century frontierspeople. Genie talks about this explicitly, as does almost everyone in Anchorage at that time, that this mindset fosters interdependence. So I think that people are the setting in the sense that, even before the quake, there’s not much in the city itself. The spareness of the environment makes you notice the people more, and how they relied on each other in very obvious ways. 

That’s the upshot of the book: you hold onto everyone, because that’s what keeps you from sliding off the face of this moving earth. When the earthquake comes and knocks down the little bit of quote-unquote metropolitan civilization that exists there, suddenly everyone is living in the bush. People in the middle of downtown Anchorage are getting their news via ham radio and going to their neighbor’s meat locker for food. All the things that disguise their interdependence in a more developed, 20th century community are suddenly gone. Maybe the people are always the setting, but you don’t notice it as much. 

MC: I think that the thesis of your book can basically be summed up with your line, “Our goodness is ordinary.” How has your belief in human goodness changed from when you began writing this book to now that we’re a year into the pandemic?

JM: That’s one that I don’t exactly have an answer for, though it’s one that I’m asking myself constantly. There’s definitely been moments in the past year when I was like, “My book is all wrong,” you know? Like, “People are vile,” and, “Look at these idiots!” I’ve gone through all kinds of ups and downs on that front. And it’s been weird to also have this strange, personal-slash-professional stake in whether or not people are going to turn out to be good. So on top of all the moral and spiritual aspects of it, I’m like, “Am I right? Am I wrong?” 

I do think that there’s been so much failure of human ingenuity and leadership along the way, large and small, and I’m incredibly cognizant of that. But given that’s the case, there was a lot of good at work; I definitely did way more good this year, in a civic context, than I’ve done in my life, and I’ve seen other people doing the same thing. And good isn’t always in the doing, but in thinking and in challenging the ways that we think about things. There’s been a lot of really positive action, but there’s also been positive soul searching and quiet contemplation that’s happening. So I think if it’s a yes no, “Are people good?” Then yeah, I still come out on “People are good.” 

MC: In the book, there’s a difference between being quote-unquote good in an active, visible way in the short term, versus being that same kind of good in the long term. Like you said about introspection, there’s variety to what it means to be good.

JM: I’m really glad you mentioned that, actually, because that’s one thing that I was trying to make clear when the book first came out at the beginning of the pandemic. The book is about three days, it’s the first three days after this completely devastating, confusing disaster—at the end of the book, they’ve only just figured out how many people died. When you look at disaster studies, that’s a very particular window of time. It’s when you see this altruistic collaboration at its peak. After that is when all the bullshit starts to happen. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and impatience and frustration. In some ways, it’s not a good analog to a pandemic, because we haven’t been in that honeymoon period this whole year. We’ve been moving in and out of thorniness and confusion. It’s not a question of “Are people perfect all the time,” it’s that there are these windows where you see what’s possible.

MC: I was so sad when I was reading the book and I got to the end of those three days. All of a sudden, the bureaucracy came in, and I was like, “Oh, fuck, I guess they can’t keep this up.” They have to live in a different society now than they’ve been in for the last three days, and this other society has radically different expectations.

There’s something we can do right now to fix this: there’s something people can do to help. That’s such a relief after going through this whole year.

JM: I think that’s totally right. And I feel like, with the vaccine, it’s a chance to be in that moment again. Now there’s just one big project, which is to get these vaccines in peoples’ bodies. There’s something we can do right now to fix this: there’s something people can do to help. That’s such a relief after going through this whole year where that has often not been the case. 

MC: Yeah, it’s a clear-cut opportunity to do good. I got my first vaccine two weeks ago, and I was thinking about how I hadn’t been around this many people in a year, but I also hadn’t been around this many happy people. You go into a grocery store, and there’s a lot of people, but they’re all at their wit’s end. But you go to a clinic and everyone’s like, “We’re getting the vaccine!” They’re so elated.

JM: I’ve heard that from so many people. There’s something about being in proximity to that many people. Everyone feels like they’re part of something substantial, they’re not side-eyeing each other, like at the grocery store. It feels like the fellowship I’m describing in the book, and it’s very welcome.

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