Review of The Chicken Soup Murder

The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbors whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbor and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.1

But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully2 following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views.  Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.”3 Indeed.

Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”4) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson.

The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.

Summary: The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.

NOTES:


  1. The adults in the novel lean towards dismissing Michael’s views—partly because he’s made up stories in the past and partly because he doesn’t get disclose all he observed immediately after Irma died. Since the readers know more, it would be difficult for them to so casually dismiss Michael’s concerns. 
  2. Ironically, this seems to have indirectly led to Irma’s death. 
  3. For the non-sporty/confused fellow Americans, league tables refers to football (soccer) stats. Football is very much present in this chapter, so it’s an apt metaphor. 
  4. This point is particularly infuriating when Zene points out Michael never asked about his parents, as though her earlier discouragement might not have played a role! 

Eight Reasons (Excuses) Why I Broke My Book Buying & Borrowing Ban

As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list.

Eight Reasons (Excuses) Why I Broke My Book Buying & Borrowing Ban
My actual book stack of unread books may be larger and more likely to tip over.

Checking on my reading goals1 seems to be a new habit of mine, one perhaps inspired by my discovery that I have a tendency to plan my reading and then read something different. But this year, I felt that I needed to whittle down my to-read booklist by focusing on books I already own. This decision, fueled by receiving several books as presents for my birthday and Christmas last year,2 became more urgent when I realized how long one book had been on my to-be read list.3 And it’s not the only book I’ve had for a few years but haven’t started/finished. It made sense, therefore, to put a moratorium on book buying, library loans (barring a few pre-approved exceptions), and other acquisitions until I made a good dent in my pile at home. With that in mind, I finished and returned my library books and picked the first books off the stack: Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun by Velma Wallis. Off to a good start in January!

If you’re suspicious that my resolve might be weak, you’d be correct. As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list. Apparently, the long list of books that I want to read continues to beckon and distract me from my reading goals. Fortunately, I have eight legitimate reasons (excuses) for breaking my resolve:

(1) My spouse. (No, really!) He found a book about bees at the Philadelphia Flower Show, one that supported bee researchers (we came this close to getting a beehive). Since it was practically the environmentally responsible thing to do and would make such a great coffee table book (a known weakness of mine), I went and bought it.

(2) Christmas gift card. I received a gift card for a bookstore, and it’d be rude to not use it, especially since one of the book I purchase was written by a fellow Women’s Writer Network member (The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan). It’d be ever ruder not to support a fellow woman writer, right?

(3) Used bookstore credit. After replacing several volumes of Agatha Christie short stories featuring Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot with two volumes that contained all their stories,4 I took the books I no longer needed to resell them at my local used bookshop. It turns out I had some store credit already, and I left with three books (sorry not sorry). So far, I’ve only read one!

(3a) Book replacement? So, I replaced books I owned for omnibus versions containing the same titles. To be honest, this strikes me as being an even exchange. You know what, I’m not counting this one, even if I re-read a few stories.

(4) Crowdfunded books I supported. Technically, I supported Helen Taylor’s debut novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory, roughly a year before I made any promises regarding reading only books I already owned. Although I already bought it, it only arrived a few days ago (and I will begin reading it as soon as I finish the two books I’ve already started). More sketchily, I also supported the Waymaking anthology. However, it has yet to arrive, so it surely doesn’t count until it’s in my possession, right?

(5) Reading for a Twitter chat. As part of my reading for the Women Writers Network Twitter chat on Women Writers and the Environment, I wanted to read a few books on the topic, one of which was on my pre-approved book to borrow list (Silent Spring by Rachael Carson). The other one (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed) wasn’t, but researching is important the way I see it.

(6) Kindle reader. I borrowed my spouse’s old Kindle reader to read library books that were on my approved exceptions list (eg, Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring), because I keep accruing library fines when I miss returning them by their due date.5 Then, I promptly borrowed a few additional books for the aforementioned Twitter chat (research!), a book on my to-be read list from 2016 that I don’t own, and a few titles for the #readingwomenmonth challenge. Who knew the hold list would be fulfilled so quickly?

(7) Book giveaways. I signed up for a book giveaway (see here) for #readingwomenmonth and won! Does it count if I didn’t buy it? Probably, but I’m not feeling repentant.

(8) Book sale. I suppose that’s not a good reason, but it was a book that piqued my curiosity and was under five dollars.

I suppose it’s good to have goals, even you don’t strictly adhere to them. With that said, I have read eight of the sixteen books I resolved to read back in January so far (my total list, not counting re-reads, contains 22 books). It’s entirely possible that I’ll make it through my list and make a considerable dent in all the books (new and old) I have in stock. While my book buying/borrowing ban may not have entirely succeeded, but it seems to help me stay on a track and read several great books I intended to read for some time.

NOTES:


  1. For the curious, I generally switch between reading and writing topics, with a few interesting science books and reviews thrown in. In the spirit of Reading Women Month, my June posts will focus on reading topics, which will include books written about and by women. 
  2. Considering that these events are but a month apart, I had a small shelving crisis—but, being a bookworm, it’s the kind of problem I like having. 
  3. I’ve finally started Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century. The first few pages were slow going, but it’s picking up. 
  4. You wouldn’t believe how time consuming it is to find a story among four or five books, some of which duplicate certain tales. 
  5. I’m lobbying to get a shelf named after me. 

Summer Reading and Women Writers

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers.

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers. Recently, the Women’s Writer Network held their second Twitter chat of 2018 on June 5th. This time, our discussion focused on women writing the city, and we had an engaging conversation about how the urban landscape appears in writing. You can check out the highlights here and find our reading recommendations lists here.1 These chats tend to be inspiring, both for generating ideas about and for writing as well as providing opportunities for discovering (or rediscovering) authors. I’ll be sure to announce the next Twitter chat (planning already underway!) when details become available.

Additionally, Reading Women is celebrating their second year podcasting. As I discussed last year, Reading Women, dedicated to reclaiming half the bookshelf, focus on works written by and about women. In additional to the #readingwomenmonth photo challenge (I’m participating again this year), they are debuting a Mrs. Dalloway read along (incidentally, one of the books mentioned during Women Writer’s Network Twitter Chat) as well as other events described here.2

Finally, another opportunity to read more women writers will be in August, which is Women in Translation month. Founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, this event seems to grow every year. In addition to Meytal’s 2018 #witmonth resources page, you can check out the Translationista blog run by Susan Bernofsky and the Women in Translation blog (run by women translators) for more ideas and information. I’ll be discussing more about #witmonth when we get closer to August.

The Recs Lists

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read. Links will takes you to post I’ve written focusing on the books or their writing approaches.

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

For more ideas, you can also take a look at last year’s recommendations. Happy reading, everyone! And as always, feel free to share your suggestions!

NOTES:


  1. You can see the highlights for this year’s first Women Writer’s Network chat on Women Writers and the Environment here. The Goodreads list is available here
  2. I’ve just won a giveaway from Reading Women! 

Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. 

Why I’m Reading Women Writers for Women’s History Month and Beyond

For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.

NOTES:


  1. We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. 
  2. Moreover, even women characters lack representation
  3. IFL Science, helmed by Elise Andrews, published Women Scientists You Need to Know on this International Women’s Day. Also in the “hidden history” category is Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks, which discusses the life of Henrietta Slack, the woman whose cancer cells taken without permission led to countless scientific breakthroughs and raised serious questions about medical ethics. 
  4. And yes, it is book that I said held the record for being on my to-be read list the longest. I promised to read it this year, and there’s no time like the present. 
  5. Recently, EF addressed women’s unpaid emotional labor with update on etiquette by Alice Williams: New Etiquette Rules for Women—Without the Sexism This Time

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read

But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

Finding new books to read and authors to follow is half the reason why I participate in reading challenges I find on social media.1 But a recent challenge gave me pause when it pointed to some reading I’d been neglecting. As I was scanning through the 2018 Reading Women’s challenge, I discovered this:

23. The book that has been on your TBR list the longest

Immediately, I felt guilty when I thought of the dusty shelf or two that holds the books I plan to get to…eventually. While my to-read list might include books I need to buy or borrow, most that linger on my list are ones I already own. And my longest unread book has been on said shelf for quite some time. Clearly, I’m not the only bookworm with a stack(s) of books-not-yet-read. But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

The Reading Runaround

Most of us, I’m sure, will point to an abundance of optimism when it comes to our reading time (so many books, so little time). On occasion, we forget some of the books on our reading queues merely because our lists are long. Naturally, we’re more likely to read books we own versus ones we don’t have.2 But time management, access, and poor memory aren’t the only contributing factors. For every book we truly wanted to read but couldn’t squeeze into our schedule, we also skipped several books in favor of reading something else. Whether it’s flagging attention or lacking commitment to the read, I took an honest look at the other reasons that keeps books on the to–be read list.

Difficult Times: Challenging Books and Environmental Hazards

Among the reasons why a book might become stranded on the to-read shelf is the quality of the time we have to read. Not every reading session occurs in a quiet space: many of us read at moments we snatch while we’re exercising at the gym, sitting in waiting rooms, or commuting, often with televisions blaring in the background. We might, therefore, forgo the books that we perceive as being difficult reads, ones with harrowing accounts, difficult syntax, or complex arguments. While my reading environment affects new book selection, I’m unlikely to abandon a book in progress. It’s not to say environment doesn’t matter: I might occasionally postpone my reading until I’m somewhere quieter. The critical factor here is that I know I won’t choose to begin reading a book that requires deep concentration when that’s not an option. In a busy life, however, that type of book might be placed on hold indefinitely.

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century likely holds the title for being on my to-read list the longest. While I’m interested in reading this work as it relates to the women’s rights movement in the United States, parsing Fuller’s sentences can be challenging.

Why It’s Difficult to Stay Committed: Waning Attention and Weak Interest

Picking up a book and reading well past bedtime is a common event for bookworms, but we’re also familiar with the reverse problem: when the book either fails to engage or hold our attention. When I’m not “hooked” into the book,3 I find myself skimming ahead to determine whether it improves. If I’m still plodding through it, I put it aside—the same applies for books that I feel don’t maintain my interest despite an intriguing opening.4 In other cases, some books don’t match our expectations for it. When this is problematic, I find my interest in the book declines and it gets shelved. And to be perfectly truthful, sometimes the more complex books out there require more effort to read than we want to make at that moment. Reading through extended passages of dialect, for example, can become tiresome. Even sufficient time and a quiet space for reading combined can’t make tedious reading fun. And if it’s not fun, both attention and commitment to reading have a way of waning.

What I’ve also observed about books that don’t initially capture my attention is that many belong to the “you ought to read this” category. These recommendations come from various lists (“Best Books”, reading assignments, literary classics, etc.) and suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from fellow readers. The difficulty here is that we seem to add “ought-to” books to our reading lists out of obligation more than excitement. There’s an almost medicinal quality to this approach: it’s good for us to expand our reading interests, but will it be to our taste? While people discover new favorites from stretching outside their preferred genres regularly, they also stumble over books that don’t intrigue them. I personally think we should expand our reading horizons, read diversely, and embrace challenging books. But vetting “ought-to” books—skimming a few pages or reading reviews—could be helpful for making more suitable selections.

Reading and Revising

Having promised myself to mostly read books that I owned this year, the Reading Women’s 2018 challenge is a helpful push toward meeting this goal. And taking an honest look at why some books remain on my own to-read list has inspired me to make time for those books I genuinely want to read, however much of a challenge they present. More importantly, it’s made me reconsider whether every book should remain on my list. If I’ve tried reading something on multiple occasions, it may well be time to pass it along to someone else who will enjoy it. After all, there’s so many books and so little time.

NOTES:


  1. The other half is because I like reading. But you knew that. 
  2. Having reviewed my 2017 reading resolution list halfway through the year, I discovered that I read very few of the books I pledged to read that January ( I read other books instead). Roughly half of the books I skipped were ones I didn’t own. 
  3. The term narrative hook describes the the technique by which the opening (typically, the first line but can be paragraphs or pages) of a story is designed to grab the reader’s attention. A good hook goes a long way towards securing the reader’s interest. 
  4. For the record, this doesn’t mean the book is boring by any means. I’ve returned to books, read them through, and rather enjoyed them, which is why some books linger long so long on my reading list. For the other books, they’re usually just not my cup of tea. 

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women

“Let us die trying.”

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.[†]

alaska legend wallis plow posts
Traveling from Skagway, Alaska, to Frasier, Canada, the roads are marked with these poles to guide snowplows. They were level to windows on the coach bus. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

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.

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis's Two Old Women. Text and Photo by Rita E. Gould
Sitka spruce (Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary, Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo by Rita E. Gould).

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.

NOTES:

[*] 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.