Before I visited Alaska last year, I decided to read a few books beforehand to complement my travels. Although my trip occurred during summer,[*] reminders of the severe winters were everywhere, suggesting the snow and ice could return at any moment. Alaskan literature, as befitting a place that both borders and resides within the Arctic Circle, reflects the dominance of winter with its tales of frozen landscapes and survival.[†]
The Gwich’in and Life in the Boreal Forest
Both winter’s harshness and the human struggle to survive feature heavily in Velma Wallis’s retelling of a Gwich’in Athabaskan Native American legend about two unlikely heroes: the eponymous elderly women. Long before Western people came to Alaska, the People (as the Gwich’in called themselves) lived in the boreal forest. Much like other First Peoples whose survival depended on hunting and gathering berries and edible plants, they moved camp frequently to follow game. Working together harmoniously was important to their existence. Everyone who could contribute needed to do so to ensure their survival. Even so, the land did not always provide sufficient resources.
An Alaskan Legend
In Two Old Women, this very disaster occurs. By late fall, the People cannot find game and face starvation. Their leader makes a shocking decision: when they leave camp, they will go without the two old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak. Despite their fondness for these women, the brutal logic of survival dictates that they should not waste resources on those who will soon die. The stunned women silently accept their fate, and no one protests their abandonment—not even Chi’dzigyaak’s daughter and grandson. Questioning the ways of the People was not condoned and could lead to ostracism and exile.[‡] Boldly though, both leave useful gifts behind for the women: an ax and babiche (rawhide strips).[§]
The two women decide to “Let us die trying”, to attempt surviving despite the odds. Most of the novel is marked by this weary but increasingly determined spirit to endure despite their age-related infirmities, isolation, and desperate circumstances. Renowned more for their complaining natures than their contributions to the band,[**] the women’s transformation to independent, strong survivors is difficult yet amazing. They realize, as they brush off rusty skills, that they let themselves rely too much on younger people when they could still care for themselves. No less remarkable is their eventual reconciliation with their band and Chi’dziyaak with her family. From weakness to strength, this tale inspires.
Sharing an Oral Tradition
In the preface, Wallis explains that Gwich’in legends are shared as gifts. Her mother shared this tale because she (Wallis’s mother) felt proud that she could still perform the heavy chores necessary for caring for herself despite advancing age. And part of this story’s charms lies in the sense that, true to the oral tradition from which it came, it reads as though it were spoken aloud. Wallis’s telling also captures this sense of pride in one’s capability as well as the terrible beauty of the land: snow-laden spruce, the Northern lights, and ice rivers that may or may not be solid underfoot. Her sensitive yet honest approach show the harsh decisions her people sometimes made from desperation but still allows us to see how kindness and genuine affection prevail. Wallis’s gift to us is a window to her culture and an uplifting tale to warm our hearts on a cold winter’s eve.
[*] During my visit to the southeastern coast in July, temperatures ranged from 55°F to 70°F (12.7°C –21.1°C), depending on time of day, elevation, and weather. July weather near my home ranged from 83°F to 94°F (28.3°C – 34.4°C).
[†] This facet remained true even in novels set in more recent times (Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child [1920s], and Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves [1960s–1970s]). Despite access to technology the Gwi’chin did not have, small mistakes, accidents, and illness led to deaths in the frozen climes.
[‡] These themes are explored more in depth in Wallis’s follow-up novel, Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun.
[§] Mistreating or losing an ax could have severe consequences for Ch’idzigyaak’s grandson, just as leaving a valuable resource such as babiche could do the same for her daughter.
[**] Wallis makes it clear complaining wasn’t usually tolerated and was viewed as a weakness; the women were humored (presumably) due the People’s fondness for them. However, as Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak decide, their complaints may have convinced their band and their chief that they were no longer competent enough to endure a harsh winter.