In the Author’s Note, Cindy Dyson talks about which parts of And She Was were true to Aleutian history and which were fictionalized.
We don’t know if any groups of women broke taboos to hunt sea mammals during the Russian-Aleut War. We do know that many starved. As a mother myself, I imagined what a group of women with starving children would be willing to risk to protect their children, inventing a group of women who did venture into the male role as sea hunter.
This would make a compelling story by itself, but one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the way the story continues. Their stolen power corrupts these women over the generations, and their morality slips from an altruistic use of the power to take on a non-traditional role in order to save their own children from starvation, to an “end justifies the means” justification of murder in an attempt to save their entire culture.
The first generation stole the hunters’ power to feed their children. The only immorality in this situation is the breaking of taboo. This, of course, is no small thing, but there is a significant difference, in my modern mind, between breaking a taboo against women doing tasks designated as belonging to men and breaking a taboo against killing, which is what the later generations in the story did.
The very next generation used the stolen power to kill, killing the local shaman, Usilax, who had prevented the local children from being vaccinated against the smallpox that was killing many of them. Although Usilax had many supporters, there were many who did not agree with him, and the very morning his body was discovered, men were sent to ask the priests to come vaccinate the children.
The following generation kills those who kill local women, preventing the murders of more women and avenging the victims. They are able to justify the killings by pointing out that society in general and the “proper authorities” in particular don’t care about the murders of a few native whores – it’s vigilante justice rather than pure murder. However, it still takes a psychological toll on the women of that generation, as evidenced by the character of Fenia. (Fenia was born a bit “slow” but becomes obsessed with death as she is exposed to and made a part of more killings. At times she seems lucid, but at other times … not so much.)
For me, the current generation – Ida, Little Liz, Anna, and now Bellie – is where the group truly slips over into immorality. They are still using the power they have stolen to bring what they see as justice to those who are destroying their people, but they have become the final arbiters of who deserves their justice and why. They don’t take into account the wishes and feelings of the other people involved, or even stop to consider whether their actions will really have the long-term effects they desire.
Ida sabotages a boat which is smuggling liquor, causing it to sink, killing all on board, but preventing, at least temporarily, the acquisition of additional alcohol by the Aleutian men in the relocation camp – saving them from themselves. She, and the others of the time, including an aged Fenia, feel the temporary reprieve for their men is worth the lives of the men on the boat. One can certainly feel sympathy for their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the challenges of the Aleutian relocation camps during World War II (for more on these camps, check out Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse, which I reviewed previously).
Ida observes that during times when there is no alcohol available in the camp, Eli, Liz’s father, is totally different:
She watched Eli join the other men to build new cabins to relieve the overcrowded bunkhouse. She saw him wrap his arms around Lizzy and heard the girl’s shy laughter.
These observations might have led them to hope for similar changes in more of the men if they could only stop the liquor. But the absence of alcohol is only temporary, and soon the men have fallen back into alcoholism. Killing the smugglers was futile – the women have taken on the guilt for this act without any real lasting benefit to their people.
When Little Liz is grown, the group kills a social worker, Busy Mouth Holton, to prevent her from taking more of the community’s children. This death is even harder to justify. Here, they are trying to prevent the long-term loss of their people and culture, at the expense of a generation of children who would be raised in poverty, surrounded by alcoholism and less-than-ideal home situations rather than the “more suitable” homes and access to education the social worker wants for them on the mainland. It’s a difficult dilemma. You can see their point – removing the children robs them of their cultural heritage and the community of any chance of continuation; and who sets the mark on the continuum of “suitable family situation” – who decides how much poverty or alcoholism or neglect is too much? One person’s definition of “too much” might be very different than another’s.
But the solution of killing a social worker is a drastic one with far-reaching unknowable consequences for all concerned. Little Liz is deeply affected by the killing, and the woman’s death did not actually solve the problem – social services sent another worker, whom the women met with and walked out on, disbanding their local aid organization. They refuse to work with her, but it’s clear from things that happen later in the story that the new social worker is also removing children from island homes and placing them in “more suitable” homes on the mainland. Killing the social worker did nothing to solve the problem, so they try a new strategy.
At the time of Brandy’s story, they kill a local man with substance abuse problems. Nick beats his wife and the couple’s children have been taken away by social services. Mary says she loved Nick, and that the kids loved him too. But Ida seems to believe Nick needed to die, in part because of the abuse, but mostly so that social services would allow Mary’s children to return to the island so they can be raised as Aleuts. Liz also blames him for ruining a prospective home when he was an alcoholic and drug-addled teenager, which led to the killing of the social worker.
I suppose it all comes down to power, and women taking and using power in the face of hopeless situations. In the modern story, Brandy wonders how the Aleut women would have reacted to the Russians wrongdoings, and her thoughts reflect this:
I wondered what happened to the mind of a woman whose husband had been taken by force to hunt, who was made to cook, clean, and bed his enslaver during the months he was away. Did she seek revenge in small ways, spitting into dinner stews? Wetting sleeping blankets? Did she ever try to run? To kill? Or maybe she went the other way. It’s not as heroic but probably far more practical. Did she accept him as the new alpha male, stronger than her last, more able to protect and provide? … I could only imagine the thoughts of a woman in another time.
Later, looking at the sketch called the Aleut Mona Lisa, Brandy says, “What did you do? … When the Russians came, what did you do?”
As readers we know that she was, perhaps, one of the women who broke taboos in order to save their children, and that knowing is also overlaid with the knowledge that perhaps she didn’t – that this “perhaps” came from the author’s imagination.
One thing that bothers me, is the implication that these women succumbed to power and became immoral because they were women. That only women would use power to kill men who were killing whores or beating their wives. That men wouldn’t do anything about the situation, and women are powerless without breaking taboo. So when women do gain power, they try to right the wrongs that affect women most. But taking on this power and using it to kill is shown to cause grave psychological problems – Fenia and Liz in particular. This was also explained in the books Brandy read about the mummies. Those books did indicate that it affected the (male) hunters the same way, but I don’t think we see any evidence of that outside the books, which could lead to the interpretation that 1) men don’t use the power anymore, or 2) men aren’t affected this way by the power – women are affected because it is taboo for them to use it.
In general Dyson has written some very strong, if flawed, women. There is not a single male character in this book that we get to know nearly as well as the women. The closest we get – Les, Carl, and Thad – are still pretty underdeveloped stereotypes. So, perhaps I’m reading too much into this – what do you think?
What do you think of the group’s slide into immorality, their justifications for their actions, and the use of power by the powerless?