Friday, August 12, 2011

Aarigaa! The Midnight Sun Lives

It's been a while since I've written about my obsession with the midnight sun.
I've always wanted to learn more about the natives of Alaska who were the people of the midnight sun, too.  I had studied them a little bit when I majored in anthropology in college, but I wanted to know more.

I just found a book, short but packed with breathtaking writing, that did just that.

Sometimes I have no idea why I pick up a book.  I like to explore the Young Adult section of the Broome County library and sometimes a title or a picture just calls to me.

Recently, that happened with a book called Blessing's Bead, by Debby Dahl Edwards.  I really don't have any idea why I picked it up.  But I literally couldn't put it down, and not just because of its depictions of the midnight sun and the darkness of winter.   I learned so much more from this book.  If I used an Inuit rating system, I would give it 5 Aarigaas (their word for "Wow").

This is a story about a young woman, almost a teenager, of the Iñupiaq people. Some would call them Eskimos, although my understanding is that the correct word is Inuit.  Blessing is taken from her Mom by Anchorage's child protective service agency and sent (with her younger brother Isaac) to live with her grandmother who lives in a remote Inuit village above the Arctic circle.  This starts out as a very rough transition but ends happily in more ways than one.

Although Blessing's knowledge of the Iñupiaq language is limited when she arrives, she is able to understand it by the time the book ends.  This is no easy task, as illustrated by these words for the lack of sun. (the pronunciations are those given by the author.)

I learned the word Nippivik (nippy-vick)-  the time when the sun sets (November) Siqiñgilaq (see-kiny-gee-lyaq) the time of no sun, and Siqiññaatchiaq (si-kin-nyaht-cheeahk)  the time of the bright new sun (January).  I don't know if I will remember it.  But what words of power they are.          

However, the story did not begin with the story of Blessing (which takes place in 1989).  Rather, it started as the story of her great-grandmother Nutaaq, which starts in 1917 and continues into 1918.  Nutaaq's older sister Aaluk marries a Siberian Inuit that summer and travels back to his village to live.  Normally she would come back to visit annually during a trading fair.  But then, the Spanish flu epidemic arrives.  Nutaaq's mother, father, "nearly all the babies, and all the old ones, with the old knowledge we never yet learned" and basically most of the village, die.   Her descrition of the "Ones We Lost" is so beautiful it makes you cry.  A culture left adrift, so depressed they would not even care for their reindeer herds.  What would happen to them?

The survivors are called to a meeting and forced by a missionary to pick a new spouse. (This, and the flu epidemic, were historic events.) The survivors are married on the spot in a mass ceremony and adopt the young orphans.  Nutaaq, (one of the young women forced to marry) meantime, never sees Aaluk again.  Nutaaq has no idea if Aaluk, in Siberia, was taken by the great sickness.  What was called the "Ice Curtain" has come down, and the Siberian Inuit can not visit their Alaskan relatives, and vice versa.  They are separated by politics none of them understand.

When we skip ahead to 1989, the Alaskan Inuit of Blessing's adopted village speak a dialect called Village English, use snowmobiles, gather clams from the beach in plastic grocery bags and have managed to blend their traditional culture with the European culture around them.   They are Christian. They eat both Sailor Boy crackers and whale meat.  What would Tupaaq had thought? (this part was especially fascinating to me).

When the Iron Curtain came down in Europe, the Ice Curtain came down also, and Blessing is there when the first Siberian Inuit flight arrives at her village.  There is an old man with them.   He is Aaluk's son.

I normally don't do "book reviews" but this is a must read for all lovers of the midnight sun, and the land where it shines in the summer.  Even if we love it from afar.

And the bead?  Well, you'll just have to read the book yourself.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds amazing! I'll watch for it.

    **Katy M
    Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at
    Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove


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