Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse was a quick but interesting read. The story is a fictionalized first-hand account of the relocation of Americans from the Aleutian Islands to camps in southeastern Alaska (near Ketchikan in this case), and the hardships they endured there. It’s classed as Children’s Literature, and it’s definitely one I could see being part of my 4th grade son’s curriculum as part of a unit on either Native Americans or World War II. The vignette style keeps it from getting too intense for children to cope with, while keeping it interesting and allowing them to relate to the narrator.

The historical tidbit that immediately intrigued me was the fact that the Japanese invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska during World War II. This was new to me, despite my being a bit of a history buff. We think of the attack on Pearl Harbor as being the only attack or invasion on US soil during the war in the Pacific, but there were actually several others. The Aleutians aren’t mentioned in the second article, perhaps because Alaska was not a state, but neither was Hawaii at the time.

Dutch Harbor attack photo And She Was

from the Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Alaska Anchorage

 

This photo shows buildings burning after the attack on the fort at Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942. This attack is briefly mentioned in And She Was as well – the narrator says the barracks buildings were obvious targets and after the attack, smaller cabanas were built, scattered in the hills, to house soldiers.

 

In June 1942, Alaska and Hawaii were both territories of the United States whose inhabitants were citizens. But after the outer islands of Attu and Kiska were invaded, the residents of all the islands from Unalaska on were rounded up and brought to relocation camps, similar to the internment camps for Japanese Americans in California, Washington, and Oregon, though the government claimed it was for their own safety due to the bombing. And, judging from the first article above, the US military response was massive, so civilians would have been in grave danger.

However, conditions in these relocation camps, much as in the internment camps, were primitive.* One of the vignettes compares conditions in their camp to those of a nearby POW camp**:

They are well fed, we hear,

They have cots and blankets, every last one,

They have room to stretch their long legs. And good sanitation and an infirmary.

They are provided a clean, safe place to live, a variety of foods, and recreation. They are not expected to contribute in any way to their keep.

We are citizens of the United States, taken from our homes. We did nothing wrong, and yet we get little to eat and no doctoring, and our toilet is an open trough washing into the creek.

No seats,

Just a run of water flowing in at one end, flushing waste out the other.

The German prisoners and the flies think our government has devised a very good system.

According to the Author’s Note, between June 1942 and spring 1945, “as many as one in every four evacuated Aleuts had died from tuberculosis, whooping cough, measles, mumps, pneumonia, or pain.” Some sources claim as many as half died.

The setting – and in this case the change of setting in particular – played an important role in the story. It is mentioned a number of times that trees do not grow naturally on the Aleutian Islands, but the camp described in the book was located in a thickly forested region along the southeastern coast of Alaska, south of Juneau. This change in setting was very detrimental to the health of the relocated Aleuts – the damp got in their lungs and made them sick. The camp did not have proper sanitation, which led to contaminated drinking water. Nor were they provided with proper medical care, and they were not able to use their own natural remedies because the plants were unfamiliar.

WET

Our books ruined because the pages are too wet to turn. Everything stinks of mildew.

Our blankets, our hair. Our skin never dries, our clothes cling, our feet are damp, we are always coughing.

Perhaps somewhere people sleep in dry beds

And take the sunlight for granted.

This resettlement during World War II is part of the larger, ongoing pattern of abuse and neglect of Native American peoples by the US government since its inception (and by European settlers before then). Several of the vignettes refer to the loss of culture and purpose caused by the relocation, which in turn lead to depression, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, and other destructive behaviors.

The men were taken away from a subsistence life in a fishing community, dropped in an unfamiliar, inland location where few of their work skills were valued, and told they must find jobs to support themselves and the rest of their people. They had to walk miles to reach the towns around the camp, and were not allowed to have guns to do any hunting to supplement the insufficient and inadequate food the camp residents were given.

While some of the details are different, it strikes me that their situation was probably similar to that of Native Americans who were forced onto reservations, and certainly the results – in terms of health issues, depression, substance abuse, and loss of culture – were similar. Some of the Aleutian people were eventually able to return to their homes, but even that was bittersweet due to damage.

The book is presented as a series of vignettes, which allows a sense of detachment. The language is beautiful and poignant, but makes the cultural details somewhat scant – more vague impressions than rich descriptions, like a Monet painting rather than a botanical text on water lilies.

“The salmon go home each year,” they say. “And the seal…. When can we?”

And:

“When we were small,” they say, “always we heard stories. The elders called us in, even on sunny days, to tell stories.

Our ears learned to listen, even as we pretended indifference. Even as we slept, stories washed over us. …

But in this relocation camp, their stories drop like stones into the sea.”

The vagueness left me wanting more, which is alright – I’ve got And She Was, after all.

 

* The National Park Service has an interesting article about the relocation as well, which also indicates that the inhabitants of Attu island were interned in POW camps in Japan, where they would have suffered even harsher conditions.
** According to an article in SitNews from Ketchikan, the German POW camp wasn’t in operation at the same time as the camp in Aleutian Sparrow, but did exist, and it makes a great literary device to compare the situations of the occupants of both camps.

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