Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fiction: Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date: 1993
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 140
Reading time: two hours

From GoodReads: Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River area in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine. Though these two women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die truing. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community, and forgiveness will carve out a permanent place in readers' imaginations.

My review: In a departure from most (all?) other epic survivalist stories, Two Old Women focuses on a year in the lives of, well, two old women who have been left to die by their community. The two women are not expected to survive, being seemingly frail and useless in obtaining food, but they are two stubborn old ladies who aren't quite as frail and helpless as they make themselves out to be.

The first third or so of the book was a bit slow. The women are traveling through the Arctic wilderness in winter, so of course it's cold and snowy and harsh. The women have to look for food, and they keep getting stiff from pushing their bodies too hard and then waking up in the cold. They also travel slower than their younger, sprier peers, so this daily sequence repeats itself for a while. But eventually, we learn more about their lives pre-abandonment, summer approaches, and things pick up a bit as readers become more engaged in the women's past and current lives. Normally, at this point I would commence a complaint about a general lack of overall development of the plotline, but the framing of the plot as folklore makes it okay. It's a retelling of a legend without much added detail, so of course to us readers used to full-length novels it seems to be lacking a bit in some areas. Told in Wallis's simple yet elegant style, however, the folktale comes off as a great little introduction to the tales and culture of native Alaska, complete with some inspirational qualities and a feel of the North American storytelling tradition.

Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun (1996) is Wallis's other retelling of Athabaskan legends, this time featuring a younger cast of characters who are described as rebels breaking the culture's taboos. I wish Wallis would write some more of these...

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