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Monday, October 13, 2008

Facts Overwhelm the Fiction in Tale of Early Alaska

(Image from Simon & Schuster)
If you watch The Tonight Show, you've probably seen a segment called "Jaywalking" in which Jay Leno questions average Janes and Joes about history, current events, and other topics. I'm not one who keeps up with that kind of stuff, so I'm often as clueless as Leno's victims, but still ... their ignorance makes for some hilarious tv. With Sarah Palin in the news, Leno recently queried Americans about Alaska. One of the questions stumped me - from whom did The United States buy the frozen state? After reading Dancing at the Odinochka by Kirkpatrick Hill, I'm proud to say I know the answer. In fact, I know heaps more about Alaska than I ever did before. Read on and you, too, will be prepared for Leno's peppering.
The novel tells the story of Erinia Pavaloff, a young girl living at an odinochka (trading post) in Alaska about 150 years ago. At that time, the land belonged to Russia and was known as Russian America. Our heroine actually lived - in fact, she was related to the author's stepfather - and this novel is based on a memoir she wrote in 1936. When the tale opens, Erinia is a young girl who loves her life at the odinochka on the banks of the Yukon River. Although she never wants to leave her home, she's curious about life outside the trading post. Luckily, the odinochka receives a fairly steady stream of visitors - from family members, to other Indian tribes, to the American soldiers who come to install a telegraph line. Through them, she sees, tastes and learns things that amaze her. Someday, she wants to see exotic items like carpets and horses and cities with perpetual sunshine. It's all so foreign to her, especially when all her actions are governed by her father's Russian ways and her mother's old, impractical traditions.
Erinia's family develops a close relationship with the Americans, even teaching them Russian and giving them animal skins to keep them warm. They welcome the new, exotic presence of the jovial soldiers. Despite the friendshp, Erinia's family and the other natives do not welcome the news that comes several years later - Russian America, now called Alaska, belongs to the U.S. Tales of native mistreatment at the hands of American soldiers in other villages makes them wary. Progress seems to be stepping all over tradition, something which plagues Erinia's mother especially since "she's known all along that one of the new things would take her sons, that nothing could hold them since they learned how wide the world was, and how many interesting things there were to see and do" (208).
As if her new identity isn't enough to deal with, Erinia's world tears apart even further when her brother commits an act that puts them all in danger. Suddenly, her odinochka is under attack on more than one front. Will her life ever be the same? Or will the world she knows disappear forever?
Like all historical novels, Dancing at the Odinochka boasts vivid period detail. I loved learning about early Alaskan culture, especially through the eyes of inquisitive little Erinia who views her world with as much wonderment as an outsider. About halfway through the book, though, the facts lost some of their luster. I was ready for some good, old-fashioned fiction. Unfortunately, the plot really doesn't begin until 3/4 of the way through the book. The last 1/4 moves along pretty quickly, but I'm not sure how many readers will endure long enough to reach the action. I realize the story is based on Erinia's real life, so it might have worked better as a non-fiction book. Even a diary-type format might have made it more exciting. I'm not saying it's a bad book - it just gets a little dull. The period detail really is fascinating, I just needed a little more story to keep me awake.
Grade: B -

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it might be an interesting book. I haven't read much about Alaska. thanks for the review.


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