Writer sets tale of teen traumas in Bethel

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2004

"Unseen Companion" is a dark coming-of-age story, set in Bethel and Sitka in 1968 and 1969.

Four teenage narrators converge to unravel the mystery of Dove Alexie, a youth who disappears from the Bethel lock-up under ominous circumstances.

The chief narrator is Lorraine Hobbs, a 14-year-old whose obsession with magazine fashion tips gives way to new involvement with the world around her after her mother forces her to get a job. The other speakers are Annette Weinland, the eldest daughter of a missionary family, and two Native students sent from Northwestern Alaska to Mount Edgecumbe High School: Thelma Cooke from Sleetmute and Edgar Kwagley from Hooper Bay.

All are outsiders, lonely, disconnected from the land and dispossessed of both family and home. Lorraine's father abandoned the family when she was a baby. A string of chance circumstances transplanted her and her spunky mother from a poor backwater of South Carolina to the bleak streets of Bethel's rundown Oscarville neighborhood:

"So we end up just staying right here in Bethel, and my mama, she works herself to the bone, holding two jobs to make ends meet, doing cooking for the jail and the receiving home (the big trailer where the orphan kids live) plus taking in sewing from anyone too lazy or rich to do it themselves."

Annette's mother recently scandalized the church by running away with another man. And the two orphan Native teens are sent away to first Mount Edgecumbe and later the Bethel receiving home.

Each has a glancing acquaintance with Dove. At Mount Edgecumbe, Thelma and Edgar see him as the aloof and angry intellectual who snaps one day and slugs a teacher. In Bethel, Lorraine and Annette work at the prison and glimpse the prisoner dragged in, silent and bleeding, by the swaggering deputy. Something about the prisoner disturbs them: he is too young, too charismatic and, they later learn, has vanished with no record of his ever being at the jail.

The stories of the teens and their troubled lives intersect and interweave as they meet in Bethel and probe Dove Alexie's fate.

Author Denise Gosliner Orenstein is adept at portraying her teens as distinctive and complex individuals. Her scenes and dialogue draw the reader into their world of frustration and desperation.

Lorraine, with her blissfully ignorant chipperness, alternately charms, annoys and surprises both herself and those around her. Her transformation from an airhead to a passionate advocate for those worse off than herself is the book's brightest ray of hope.

The other three narrators, however, hide dark secrets. Annette, for example, lives a life of desperate loneliness, acutely aware of her family's distance from the villagers around them:

"We knew the missionary families and nobody else, only in Alaska temporarily in service to our church," she says. "We never walked through a muddy Bethel street and always stepped carefully onto the boardwalks in our short, transparent boots. The children were taught at home by the women, and we never saw anything we didn't understand; we were really never living here at all."

The narrators' voices, while vivid and compelling, sometimes overwhelm the story. The author lays on dialect and threatening symbolism of volcanoes and earthquakes with a heavy hand.

Although by the book's end Lorraine, Annette, Thelma and Edgar learn to reach out in the first, tentative steps towards meaningful friendships, a mood of isolation and desolation dominates most of the story.

Orenstein taps into adolescent angst, viewing the world as a bleak and pointless place, marred by appalling adults. Lorraine's mother, gutsy and caring, is the only sympathetic major grown-up character. The author paints other adults, especially authority figures, as cruel and corrupt. Educators, law enforcers and even religion, as embodied by Annette's petty and puritanical father, let the young protagonists down.

"Unseen Companion" also depicts the conflicted lives of Bush youths and the destructive power of the old boarding school system.

"Being here at Mt. Edgecumbe, it's like something happened to my village heart," Edgar says. "Don't want no village job no more. Too boring. And anyway, after Edgecumbe, seems like Hooper Bay's just some stupid Bush town. Don't want to stay home. I want to get to Anchorage or even Outside."

Orenstein, who taught school in the Bush and spent time in the places she writes about, draws an unflattering picture of Alaska. She does not shirk from tackling harsh topics such as racism, police brutality and statutory rape.

Ultimately, her story is less about Alaska and more about difficult rites of passage for the young. She writes a compelling mystery for those who find catharsis in sad tales and dark deeds.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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