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Book Review: Race Across Alaska: The First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones

Image of a book cover. A woman with a dog sled team races across the cover.

Summary:
Libby Riddles wanted an adventure. At the age of 16 she left home for the snowy frontiers of Alaska, the Last Frontier. There, her love of animals drew her to the sport of sled dog racing. When she entered the Iditarod in 1985, the famous marathon from Anchorage to Nome, she was just another Iditarod Nobody. Twelve hundred miles later, having conquered blizzards, extreme cold, and exhaustion, she and her dogs crossed the final stretch of sea ice, miles ahead of the nearest competitor… and suddenly she realized: I will be the first woman to win the Iditarod. This is the story of a courageous woman and her heroic dogs. This is the story of Libby Riddles’s adventure.

Review:
First published in 1988, this book drips with the freshness of an event recently lived. Both in the assumption that everyone reading this knows at least some things about Libby and in the clarity with which she remembers the events. In fact, Libby was actually featured in Vogue magazine after winning the Iditarod, so the novelty of being the first woman to win meant it reached out further to the general population than it might have otherwise. Reading it in 2022 without previously having given much thought to women in the Iditarod made it feel like a fun, time-travel adventure.

Each chapter is one day of the Iditarod, and the book jumps right in with day 1. There’s no prologue or introduction to Libby. It’s just day one of the race. Each chapter also shows which part of the trail Libby completed that day, gives a note on the weather (highs, lows, and wind speed), and a brief summary of what that day was like for her. Throughout the book there are asides explaining various aspects of the Iditarod and mushing, everything from what clothes mushers wear and why to the history of the event. I found these very helpful. I just wish there’d been one introducing me to Libby too.

I expected the Iditarod to be a story of loneliness and individual perseverance. Instead, I learned that the race involves a lot of people, includes seeing people more than you might think, and is a meaningful event to various towns and villages along the trail. In retrospect I should have realized this. But the Iditarod is discussed as such a survivalist event that it never crossed my mind. Especially at the beginning of the race, the mushers are quite close to each other, and even sometimes travel in groups if they have a similar pace. Villages, towns, and even just individual homes are checkpoints throughout that the mushers must check in to. The locals open up their homes to the mushers, even giving over their beds for them to get an hour or two of shut-eye. At one point, Libby sleeps in a bed with two other mushers briefly. It’s really not the individual experience I was expecting! This sort of help is allowed only if it’s offered to all mushers equally, so when a person chooses to open up their home and feed and clothe people, they’re really offering it up.

Each checkpoint also has at least one veterinarian available to check in on the dogs. Dogsled racing is largely about the dog teams, after all. Many mushers actually breed their own sled dogs. Libby’s dogs were half hers and half her partner Joe’s. Throughout the book, we get to know her dogs a bit and see how much care she gives to them. Libby also won the award given by the vets to the musher who took best care of their dogs, an interesting accomplishment for the person who also won the whole thing that year.

This isn’t to say that mushers are never alone or reliant only on themselves and their dogs. As the race goes on, they get more spread out from each other. At one point, Libby must camp out on her sled in the middle of a blizzard completely alone. Also the further in front you are, the less clear the trail is, and the easier it is to get lost. So winning is also about having the fortitude to go ahead of everyone else.

I enjoyed how I learned about the Iditarod without ever feeling like it was a textbook. The learning happened naturally as I followed Libby on her route and rooted for her inevitable win I knew was coming. You can see some footage of Libby in the 1985 Iditarod and her induction moment into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame here. If you have little ones in your life, you might like to get Libby’s children’s book about her historic Iditarod win. The adult memoir is a fun and educational read for anyone interested in the tale.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 244 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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