The Great Death by John Smelcer. Henry Holt and Company, August 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8050-8100-8
Set in Alaska in 1917 this book gives us a glimpse into a Native village and the lives of two young girls who were their village’s only survivors of a terrible pandemic. While a fictional title, this book is based on factual events. It was an extremely interesting story and very appropriate for a middle school collection. My eighth graders will appreciate this as part of their history class and it will fill a need for Native American fiction.
While following this survival tale of 13 year old Millie and her younger sister Maura as they journeyed to find help, I kept thinking about a fact stated in the prologue: "At the beginning of the twentieth century, fully two-thirds of all Alaska Natives perished from a pandemic of measles, small pox, and influenza."
This title left me with so many questions. I believe fiction should make you wonder more so questions are good. Is it entirely fictional? Were there really two girls who survived the disease that killed so many? What happened next? Where exactly is this supposedly set? When I read the author’s website, I learned he listened to the stories of this time and place as told by his adopted grandmother and her sister.
How could it have happened? Okay, readers, forgive my naivete, but how could this have happened in the early 1900s when vaccines had been available? As I asked other educators these questions, many people described to me the deliberate spreading of disease to destroy populations in history. I spoke with librarians from Alaska who acknowledged they had heard of the Great Death, but that it was not taught in school. They mentioned history neglecting many aspects of what happened to Native Americans and focusing upon Alaska from the 1940’s on.
The Great Death inspired me to keep reading and researching more to grasp the context of this story. I found the internet article "Early Biological Warfare on Native Americans" chilling. There are many denouncers of the concept of deliberate dissemination of disease to destroy a group of people – some bloggers even questioned whether vaccination of Native Americans would have resulted in more deaths. Lots of questions, few easy answers. I even found an article from an Alaskan tv station discussing the 1918 Great Death, referred to as the Spanish flu in other parts of the world, and how antibodies from survivors may help deter a bird flu in the future. Ah! This is part of the huge pandemic that killed so many people all over the world. Why did I know more about the influenza outbreak in Europe than this pandemic in Alaska?
I reread the beginning of the book as I wondered, "Why would these strangers travel with an infected Native American from a nearby village?" As the villager traveled with these European strangers, he shared news of the many people in his village who had died from a sickness. He himself was coughing and had little red spots dotting his hands and arms. Our main character Millie wonders “if he had been bitten by a hundred mosquitoes.” These strangers visited the village, making notes and taking photographs. Why would they travel with someone who was obviously ill and would spread this disease? What became of them? Their fate is left for us to wonder.
We learn of life in this village with its small details of survival and we read that “The people always prepared against death, for they knew how it crept steadily down the mountains toward them." We witness the destruction of daily life, how nature and death are barely kept at bay, and how quickly a society can disintegrate. We witness grizzly bears attacking the village, dogs eating the dead, and constantly nature reminding us that she rules.
I was frustrated in the beginning because I was unable to locate some words from the book on the internet to see where they originated like the first chapter heading Ts’ilk’ey. I finally located one website http://www.zompist.com/amer.htm that listed these words as part of the Ahtna dialect of the Athabaskan language family. Aha! Now I could do more background searching and could place the language in context.
I found this site: http://www.native-languages.org/ahtna.htm and learned that:
"Ahtna (also spelled Ahtena or Atna) is an Athabaskan language of Alaska. Like most Athabaskan languages, Ahtna has highly inflected verbs and an SOV word order; unusually among Athabaskan languages, however, it is not a tone language and does not have nasalized vowels. Only a few dozen Copper River Indian people still speak the Ahtna language fluently today, but some younger people are working to preserve their native language for future generations. "
From Wikipedia (yes, sometimes it’s the place to begin searching) I read:
The language is also known as Copper River or Mednovskiy. There are 80 speakers out of a population of 500, and the language is facing extinction but many younger people are learning it to try to keep it from extinction.The Ahtna language consists of four different dialects, three of the four are still spoken today.The similar name "Atnah" occurs in the journals of Simon Fraser and other early European diarists in what is now British Columbia as a reference to the Tsilhqot’in people, another Northern Athapaskan group.
I even found a very interesting website from chickaloon.org which describes the
Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kenaege’ Mentorship Project. It discusses the fact that "The Tribe has one Ahtna Athabascan speaker living in the area putting us in danger of losing the ability to learn our language within the next 5 years. The goal of this project is to expand the Ahtna Athabascan language capacity of two (2) younger language teachers and work towards teaching a total immersion class at the Ya Ne Dah Ah (YNDA) School. I hope you enjoy the website and the questions it will prompt in your mind.
I wondered as I read what Debbie Reese would think of this title and how she would review it on her website. Will it pass the realism tests that all books on Native Americans face? Will it be embraced or rejected for the author’s background? Does the author share origins with the Athabaskan people? We learn from the blurb on the back that author John Smelcer has been "a visiting professor at various universities around the world", but how did he conduct his research? On the ARC I received, the author does not indicate any tribal affiliation.
I researched the author and read about his ongoing controversy over his upbringing and the culture he embraced as an adopted child. I read Larry Vienneau’s passionate comments in defense of John Smelcer. I decided that it was my job to review the book in my hand and not any internet allegations. The book gives the author’s description below and does not provide any claims, so I’m not going to focus on those.
"John Smelcer is the author of many nonfiction and poetry books for adults, as well as The Trap, which was a BBYA Top Ten Pick and a VOYA Top Shelf selection. Mr. Smelcer has been a visiting professor at various universities around the world and is the associate publisher and poetry editor at the literary magazine Rosebud. "
I am sure many people will form opinions about the author and his attempts to keep the Ahtna language alive and the traditional customs he experienced with his adopted uncle. I admire this fictional book for its story and for its bringing to my attention the impact disease had upon the Native peoples of Alaska.