'Cold River Spirits' tells of life on Yukon, in territorial Alaska

Book by By Jan Harper-Haines, Epicenter Press

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

"Cold River Spirits" is first a family history.

"When Grandma and her daughters were visiting, I'd hear 'Hey, remember that time ... ?' and off they'd go, laughing and talking."

Author Jan Harper-Haines has produced an intriguing tale of her family from early in the century to the present day. Harper-Haines begins her story in Rampart in 1897 when her grandmother was 5.

"My mother never drifted far from the spirit stories of her childhood," begins the section titled "Indian Ways."

A story of life on the Yukon and in territorial Alaska as lived by an Athabaskan-Irish family develops as the reader becomes involved with the characters that were her grandmother, mother and aunts, as well as many personalities familiar in Yukon River history -- the Carlos, the Mayos and the Rasmusons among them.

From Russian-Athabaskan-Irish roots planted firmly in the Alaska Native culture, the Harper family, through three generations, moved resolutely into "white" society.

"Leaving village and bush life for Fair-banks and a cash economy took a heavy toll on the Harpers," wrote the author in the second section, "Entering the White World."

An uncle was a decorated bombardier during World War II, and her mother, Flora Jane, was the first Alaska Native to graduate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"About her own years at the University of Alaska she was less buoyant. 'I don't like to think about that,' she said. 'It was too hard, I had to work all the time,'" Harper-Haines says of her mother.

The author also tells of the poverty and disease, the bouts with alcohol and the promiscuity that plagued some members of the family.

The story progresses more or less chronologically through the 1960s. The epilogue brings the tale into the present.

Written with sense of humor intact and with a rare perception, the story offers a clear view of the acculturation process.

The author relies on oral history and concedes, "I discovered in talking with relatives that oral history changes with each storyteller."

With that caveat, she calls her work "creative nonfiction." Interspersed with the family tales is enough documented information to give the story historical validity.

Harper-Haines began "Cold River Spirits" as a writing project for a class. It is her first book.

She was born in Sitka and graduated from UAF. She lives in northern California, but she never loses sight of where she came from.

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