Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: The Great Death by John Smelcer

Found via: Notes from the Horn Book Jan. 2010

Two things caught my attention that made me pick this book up: Native Americans and a survival story about girls. Oh, and the setting isn't some Wild West trope; instead it's 1917 Alaska. So, three things.

Millie and Maura are sisters living in a quiet, out of the way village in Alaska. They rarely have contact with anyone from other villages, let alone non-natives, so when a white man visits their village one day, the girls (and everyone else) are fascinated.

And then an illness sweeps through the village. One by one, everyone in the village succumbs to a smallpox epidemic, leaving only Millie and Maura untouched. As winter approaches and the girls are alone, they know they must start walking, hoping to find shelter in either the next village, or in the small city that has popped up down the river. They gather as many supplies as they can carry, and set off on the treacherous trek, relying on the skills their father taught them, hoping they can make it to safety before the worst of the winter strikes.

Author John Smelcer's website claims that this is a young adult novel that can be enjoyed by all ages, but it really feels more like a middle grade novel, and it has some stylistic quirks that I don't think will be ignored by the average older reader. While there is some interesting survival information included, I found the narrative style made it difficult to tell whether it was the girls or the narrator who was giving us this information. The book seems to be written in a third person limited view for most of the story, focusing on Millie the older sister, but every once in awhile we'd jump to Maura's POV, and then we would learn stuff that I don't think the girls could have told us, like just how many degrees below zero it is outside. Their survival gear was listed when they set out, and a thermometer wasn't mentioned!

Millie and Maura are definitely a believable pair of sisters. Millie is resentful that she always has to take care of Maura, but she certainly loves her sister. Maura for her part can be whiny, but once it's just her and Millie she pulls herself together for the most part. Both of their faults come out occasionally during their journey, which made for a richer story - just because you're suddenly in danger doesn't mean your personality is going to do a complete 180. Maura is going to complain and Millie is going to get angry, but because they're family and they love each other they get over it and focus on finding their way to safety, even when it seems impossible.

While I was searching around for some other reviews on this title, I uncovered a bit of a controversy around the author. Apparently Smelcer insinuates he is of Native ancestry when in truth he was only adopted by his Native step-father. I encourage you to read that blog post and the comments, as they have some interesting thoughts on cultural appropriation and definitions of race.

Knowing about this controversy, however, doesn't really change my thoughts on the book. It's an enjoyable enough story, though the narrative style left me feeling quite distant.
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