And She Was has some great quotes about the Aleutian Islands that really express the setting wonderfully:
I read that a few archaeologists did not believe the standard ice age migration theory. … They did not believe that the Aleuts had come on clumsy feet, plodding after mammoths. No, they had come in boats agile and free, hugging the ice-free shores of that lost land bridge. They had come by choice, pursuing their prey across fog-strewn water to these gray beaches.
Several characters mention the kayaks, and Brandy, when she hears about this theory of the kayaks versus the overland migration, totally buys into it.
Then there is this one:
The Aleuts say, ‘This is the land that we belong to, not the land that belongs to us.’ The Aleuts and the Aleutians are one thing. This is hard for me to get hold of. Maybe some of us get it, farmers perhaps feel some identity with the land they work. But I doubt they are the land like the Aleuts. And being here, you get a hint of how this land not only possesses people, but makes them one with it.
This one feels like something that is said about other native cultures and their land – kind of a stock, stereotypical thing we tend to believe about native cultures – but it’s beautifully put.
Then there’s the Bob Hope quote:
It’s the only place on earth, he said, where a man could ‘walk in mud up to his knees bucking a snowstorm that blew sand in his face, while being pelted in the rear on a sunny day.’
I couldn’t verify this in my (admittedly quick) online search, but Bob Hope was well-known for traveling to an amazing number of far-flung places to perform for the troops during World War II, and it sounds like the kind of thing he would say.
Then there’s the references to the Russian names for the place:
One of the early Russian priests assigned to the Aleutian Islands called them the Cradle of Storms and the Birthplace of the Wind.
Appropriate, evocative descriptions.
Another way that we get to know a place, a setting, is through its people. Of course, there is a lot of that in this book, both past and present. We come to know the Aleuts and the fishermen, the drunks and the outcasts (while re-reading, looking for birds, I kept thinking about the upcoming Jones book and the Alaskan laundry metaphor – people who come to Alaska to get clean of their past). But there is also the folklore of a people and place, and Dyson mentions several of these in the scene where the group tells ghost stories in Carl’s bus during the storm.
Les tells a story about the Otter People – shapechangers, though in his ghost story they sound like misfits who don’t really take one shape or the other but rather a mix. It sounds like a made-up Native American-flavored ghost story, and I didn’t really pay much attention until I came across another Otter People story in To the Bright Edge of the World. In looking for info, I came across a good summary of the Otter People mythology of the Tlingit (some of the comments on this article are interesting too).
At the same party, Bellie tells a story that sounds (to the reader) suspiciously related to the history of the group of Aleut women that we are beginning to realize she knows about or is part of. However, it also includes the Outside Men, who were mentioned in the historical section with the smallpox epidemic, as, “that mythic clan on whom her people blamed the small calamities–broken weapons, missing food.” I haven’t been able to find anything about the Outside Men, but here it seems it could just be a symbolic name for outsiders. Whether or not it’s “real” mythology, it sounds authentic and adds to the atmosphere of the novel.
I felt like I knew a bit more of Alaska – or at least of Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands after reading And She Was by Cindy Dyson. This book hit what I was looking for, and was a great start to my challenge.
What did you think? Were there other quotes that hit just the right note for you? What was your favorite description of the place or the people?