Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley 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 women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. 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 "speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness and wisdom" (Ursula K. Le Guin).
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Velma Wallis was born in 1960 in Fort Yukon, a remote village of about 650 people in Interior Alaska. Growing up in a traditional Athabaskan family, Wallis was one of thirteen children. When she was thirteen, her father died and she left school to help her mother raise her younger siblings.
Wallis later moved to her father's trapping cabin, a twelve-mile walk from the village. She lived alone there intermittently for a dozen years, learning traditional skills of hunting and trapping. An avid reader, she passed her high school equivalency exam and began her first literary project-writing down a legend her mother had told her, about two abandoned old women and their struggle to survive.
That story became her first book, Two Old Women, published by Epicenter Press in 1993. As her second book, Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun, went to press, Wallis was living in Fort Yukon with her husband, Jeffrey John, and their two children. The family also spends time in the neighboring village of Venetie.Review:
The Athabaskan people of Alaska have long told the legend of two old women intentionally left behind by their tribe during a winter of severe starvation. Velma Wallis takes this legend and gives it life, filling in the details of the survival of the women from her own experiences trapping and living in a remote area near Fort Yukon. In her vision, the two women, seventy-five-year-old Sa' and eighty-year-old Ch'idzigyaak, have grown old ungracefully. They still contribute to the tribe, but they tend to complain and believe they must rely upon their walking sticks. When they are deserted, however, their will to live asserts itself and they declare "if we are going to die...let us die trying, not sitting." Leaving their walking sticks behind, they travel, make camps and remember the skills of hunting and survival they learned as girls who shunned the traditional path for young women. When the tribe returns after a year, seeking them out of guilt, they find strong, well-fed, and powerful women who save their tribe from starvation but insist upon maintaining their own hard-won autonomy. Their struggle is not easy; their victory is not simple. Velma Wallis tells their legend in clear, unadorned language, with insights about respect, aging, generosity, and love that will reach young and old. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. -- From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Erica Bauermeister
Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival is a classic Athabascan Indian tale of survival, filled with suspense and wisdom as told by Velma Wallis, an outstanding Native American writer. Her style is a refreshing blend of contemporary and traditional, and her choice of subject matter challenges the taboos of her past. Yet her themes are modern -- empowerment of women, the aging of America, and a growing interest in Native American values. Based on a legend told and retold for many generations in the remote Yukon River region of northeast Alaska, this is the tragic and shocking story (with an unexpected upbeat ending) of two elderly women who are abandoned by a migrating band facing starvation because of unusually harsh Arctic weather and a shortage of fish and game. -- Midwest Book Review
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