Curran, A., 2004. Book Review: Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. Reformulation, Summer, p.29.
At a time when there seems to be a plethora of books about people pitting themselves against impossibly harsh landscapes, either because of some profoundly unresolved reciprocal roles or perhaps, more cynically, because of the television series that has already put an advance into the bank balance next to the sponsorship fee, it is good to be brought down to earth, as it were, by this enchanting book about real human survival in the hostile winter wastes of Alaska.
Velma Wallis retells the story that was handed down to her through the generations by her mother. The People, a part of the Gwich’in band, are struggling to get enough food to feed them in the inhospitable landscape through which they trace their nomadic steps in the winter. Traditionally, when things reach these dire straits, the old, frailer members of the group get left behind to die. Now the chief decides, with some regret, that Ch ‘idzigyaak and Sa’ will be left here as the People move on.
Ch’idzigyaak’s daughter does not protest, but surreptitiously leaves a bundle of moose skin strips while her grandson, who seems far more moved, leaves his own personal hatchet where the old women can see it. As the two women are left behind, they decide: “If we are going to die, let us die trying, not sitting”
The book then traces the women’s journey to a place they suddenly remember where they had fished long ago. In the most extreme cold, they persevere, sometimes barely able to walk with the pain in their joints. Yet they have all their years of experience stored up and can call upon the skills their tribe have relied on through the ages: they make snow shoes, rabbit snares, warm clothes , fishing lines and eventually, as the summer progresses, build up a substantial store of dried fish and meat and are now living in relatively comfortable huts they have made.
Meanwhile, things with the People have not gone at all well. Having jettisoned the two old women, their fortunes did not improve at all and hunger and weakness beset them all. The unspoken taboo of cannibalism hung in the air. In desperation they return to the place where they’d abandoned the women the previous winter. They are stunned to find no human bones remaining where they expected the women to have died. They feel a glimmer of hope (and shame) as they send three young men to look for the women. When they meet up, they are amazed at the way in which the women have not only survived, but flourished. They are filled with remorse and admiration and realise that “in these two women, whom they once thought of as helpless and weak, they had rediscovered the inner strength that had deserted them the winter before”.
The women agree to share their food with the People, but are determined to keep the autonomy they have gained through their struggles. The People camp near them and visitors come regularly to hear the wisdom of the two women who are given honorary positions within the band. Ch’idzigyaak’s grandson comes to reclaim his hatchet amidst a deeply emotional reunion and eventually, her daughter finds the courage to face her mother and they re-find the love they have for each other. The People make a promise that they will never abandon an elder again, no matter how hard things become, and Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ eventually “each died a truly happy old woman”
This book, written with a simplicity in keeping with the story it tells, is a true legend. It is no wonder that Velma Wallis makes a dedication at the beginning “to all of the elders whom I have known and who have made an impression in my mind with
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