Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Sub-Title: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival

This book, though short, packs a heck of a punch! There is so much to consider about the characters, the society, the family. It is a story of an ancient Athabascan (Alaskan native) tribe that is undergoing such hard times that they decide, when moving on for the winter, to leave two old women behind to die. These women have been taken care of by the group, and they repay the group by sewing some stuff. They spend a great majority of their time complaining, even when the children are going hungry.

When they are left alone, they are so sad, angry, betrayed, scared. Luckily, the older of the women, Ch'idzigyaak, has a daughter and grandson who love her, and they leave her with babiche (which has so many uses and without which the women could not have survived) and a hatchet (ditto). This was very brave of the daughter and grandson, as the group could have killed them, abandoned them, and possibly even eaten them (this was suggested...) if they had spoken out against the decision of the group.

It is so motivating the way the women work to keep themselves alive. Although they have been very pampered by the group, in respect for their advanced age (Ch'idzigyaak is 80, Sa' is 75), that they have lost most of the skills to take care of themselves. However, they actually do have the skills, and used them once upon a long time ago. It's like their bodies remember the ways of survival, and although it causes them great pain, they rise to the challenge. They gain a great respect for each other, and for themselves, as they continue to survive despite the great odds. Although they feel that they have lost everything (their family group, trust in other humans, love and respect), they do actually gain something. They gain a self-reliance that, even when rejoined to the group, they choose to retain.

I think that Ch'idzigyaak would have died if she had not been with Sa'. (Specifically Sa' and not some other person or by herself). Sa' was the stronger of the two, the one who had done more wild man-type work in her youth, the more confident of the two. Her strength called Ch'idzigyaak higher each day to perform...rather than wallowing around together, they brought out and encouraged the best in each other.

The two women say that they really did not know each other, which seems surprising since they have been together for years and years. However, it makes sense that when their relationship had been based on basically complaining that they never got deeper into one another's hearts. Once they become closer friends, friends of the heart, they are much happier and more determined to survive. They learn that they can rely on each other, even though they don't feel that they can rely on any other human after what happened.

In the end, when the People find the women, it seems a good luck omen to them. The women had survived so much better than they, and they end up learning so much from the women - especially how wrong it was to leave them in the first place. It was difficult for the women to trust again, but their desire for the company of the group allowed them to overcome their fear, though they never again fully joined. The saddest part was how long Ch'idzigyaak's daughter stayed away, when her presence was the greatest desire of Ch'idzigyaak's heart. When they finally reunited, I cried along with them. The maternal bond can survive so much. Nothing can make a woman stop loving her child, even the most terrible betrayal. Through all her resentment and anger, the sight of her daughter healed everything, and all Ch'idzigyaak really wanted was for her daughter and grandson to be okay and to hold them in her arms.

To me this book is about self-reliance and forgiveness. If these two women can forgive their group for this horrible betrayal, who could I not forgive? Obviously, the story of Christ is the ultimate story of forgiveness, but sometimes it helps to hear a story more related to my life (as a mother, even if the setting is so different). And it is also a good lesson to me about self-reliance and how much people are capable of when they put their minds to it. Even that people can be at their best during the greatest adversity.

I love this book, and would recommend it to anybody, any age.

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