Monday, July 03, 2006

cox's storyteller's club: the picture-writing women of the arctic

Hailed as the Joy Luck Club of the Arctic, Loretta Outwater Cox’s book captures the world of the Inupiaq of Alaska. Interwoven into the story of her great-grandmother’s daily activities are the oral stories of her ancestors. These stories have been kept alive by a group of late-middle-aged women who have decided to meet regularly during the dark months to share stories. The storyteller weaves the story while the other women carefully draw on a piece of brown paper symbols, lines, or shapes that help the women to be able to remember the story. The book is set in the 1920s, but the stories told are from the women’s youth, around the late 1800s. The stories range from the everyday – favorite recipes – to legends of giants and spiders that live amongst the people. Each story describes the culture, history, and geography of the people and region; a recipe about fish soup, for example, describes how the fish were caught, tells what the people were doing and saying, and records the weather that day. The stories are a lesson in history, both because these are women who never learned to read and write, but because the stories record the history of the Alaskan Indians. The power of the stories is not that these are the oral history of a group of people, but that they are stories that contain universal themes: family unity, respect for others, welcoming strangers, building up the weak, overcoming difficulty, and wrestling with grief. Readers will learn about the federal government’s plan to bring education to the people of Alaska and how the Indians responded. In the end, readers will appreciate how difficult life is in the far North.


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