Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Two Old Women of Alaska

The best thing about buying used book is coming across random or sometimes even out-of-print books that you might never have otherwise even heard of. Sure, sometimes I like running into a good deal--but mainly I buy my books new and just look to the used book places for the cool finds. I've developed quite a collection of them, too, so maybe I can pick up the pace and start reading more again.

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis was a great place to start. It's only about 130 small pages, so fast readers might be finished with it in an hour (I am not a fast reader). First published in 1993, it is a story that Velma Wallis preserves from her Athabascan heritage. Usually I gather stories like this from the Southwest since that's my zone (and it's also Southwestern stories that I'm most likely to come across), so departing up to Alaska and the Arctic Circle was a bit of an adventure.

And yet also a familiar one. The straightforward writing style reminded me not so much of Native American stories (though this is an oral tradition, more people are putting these into writing, just as Velma Wallis was putting her people's oral stories into writing) but more of Little House on the Prairie. Maybe it's because there is no magical/mythological element, just a simple, factual approach. In the same way that Laura described how they would make butter or harvest hay, Velma describes the events that the two women in this story go through and all the tasks that they approach.

This is the story of age versus youth, of weakness versus strength, of hopelessness versus resolve. It's a simple story, so you could tell it all in a couple of sentences if you wanted to. But it plays out very well exactly as it is. It's a story about survival in a harsh land, and yet it is strangely relevant even to those of us who will never have to live off of the land. It is strangely relevant, as well, to modern living because it is a reminder to respect those who were born before us because they have things they can teach us, just as we have ways we can benefit their lives if only we will.

It's a story about endurance but it is also a story about community. And I find that particularly resonating today. It's so easy to be without an actual community these days that many times it is deliberate acts that keep us in communities. And by community I don't just mean a couple close friends; those are great, but we need friends, family if possible, and also relationships with people who are not entirely like us. Wonderful things happen when different generations interact with each other.

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