The Executive Director of the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance, former Saint Andrew’s Sewanee teacher, avid outdoorsman, and author, Patrick Dean (T ’06), introduces us to his new book A Window to Heaven, published March 2021. Following the true story of Hudson Stuck, an episcopal priest with his degree in theology from The University of the South, who was in the first crew to ever ascend Denali in 1913.
The Purple reached out to Patrick Dean in order to learn more about his novel and his experience as an author right here on the plateau.
Dean first encountered Stuck’s journey when he came across 10,000 Miles with a Dogsled, one of Hudson Stuck’s own books, in a Mississippi bookstore. Dean would eventually read and continue to research the Alaskan adventure that so greatly impacted his life. Dean often jokes that “writing A Window to Heaven took [him] 30 years.”
Hudson Stuck was born in London and emigrated to the United States when he was 22 years old. After spending time in Texas, he decided to pursue a theology degree here at Sewanee. He did so while editing the literary magazine and holding a position as President of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity as a seminarian. He loved the University and was always involved even after graduating. Dean shares that Stuck would write letters to the Vice-Chancellor and offer up his own advice on university affairs.
Stuck then moved to Alaska and pursued the first ascent of Denali, which he was able to accomplish with his team while receiving aid from the indigenous Alaskan people. Through this experience, he learned much about their culture and history and remained an advocate of the indigenous people. Dean says that this social advocacy, “made him a very rewarding person to write about in addition to the interesting expedition.”
When asked about his research process, Dean informs us that he was able to speak to Alaskan connections via Zoom and even the retired director of Hudson Stuck’s church. Journals of the four men on the team were available online (the magic of modern technology) and Dean was also able to speak with some of the living relatives of Stuck’s team. Harry Karstens’, a member of Stuck’s Denali summit crew, relatives shared stories and information about the ascent as well as access to archives in Austin, Texas.
Dean received his master’s degree in Theology and he wrote his thesis on Hudson Stuck. So when prompted about the process of writing the novel, Dean said that fortunately he had already done much research for this very reason. It took him about a year to complete from when he signed the contract to when he turned his manuscript into the publisher. When writing nonfiction, according to Dean,one must put together a proposal with a writing sample and chapter summaries. He says, “And I had some excellent help doing that, so when the publisher picked up the book, I had a framework already.” This included 14 chapters with about a page of text guiding through each chapter.
One thing that Dean was especially careful about when researching and writing his novel was avoiding suggesting any exploitation of the indigenous Alaskan people. He educated himself on their prehistory and history while learning about their encounters with Hudson Stuck’s team. “There was a sentence in one of the books…that said ‘For centuries people have been coming to Alaska and exploiting its resources for their own purposes,’” Dean says, and when reading this he decided that he certainly did not want to do that with his book. Dean put much consideration and effort into accurately and respectfully portraying their roles in history.
Dean also gave a Tedx Talk here at Sewanee in 2021 about what he has learned from his experience with Hudson Stuck’s life and memory. He shares three life lessons from Stuck:: 1. Take risks 2. Enjoy the natural world 3. Do good. These are simple but impactful ways that we can live our lives to the fullest.
When asked what he hopes readers can take away from this book he responded, “I hope they find it a good story; that they’re inspired by Stuck’s life in some way. Hopefully they’ll take away some lessons…about what happens when these two cultures clash. It’s an interesting and sad story, and I hope people will pay attention to that part as well.”
Since publishing A Window to Heaven, Dean has begun work on his next book. The biography of Mark Catesby, an 18th century British naturalist, follows his life on the frontier, his curiosity about new world plants and animals, and the natural history of the Carolinas.
Dean’s passion about his work on Stuck and what we are able to learn from his life is inspiring. The riveting adventure of the first ascent of Denali exposes us not only to the Alaskan frontier, but the social advocacy, service, and caring life of a man that touched our very own Sewanee soil.
Signed copies of A Window to Heaven are available in the Sewanee bookstore and a recording of Patrick Dean’s Tedx Talk is available on YouTube.