From the bookshelf: Gentle tale honors Inupiat women

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005


  "The Storytellers Club," by Loretta Outwater Cox

"The Storytellers Club," by Loretta Outwater Cox

The Storytellers' Club: The Picture-Writing Women of the Arctic

By Loretta Outwater Cox

Published by Alaska Northwest Books


224 pages

$18.95 (hard cover)

Loretta Outwater Cox's first book, "The Winter Walk," was well received, and "The Storytellers' Club" is just as good. As before, the author combines a novelist's imagination and her family's oral history to portray a bygone way of life in rural Northwest Alaska.

Whereas the first book was a tragedy, her new book deals with happier matters. It focuses on six middle-aged Inupiaq women who meet informally during the dark days of winter to share pencil drawings and stories. The main character and principal hostess is Sikki, also called Emma Sikkitkoq Mills, the author's great-grandmother.

"As the women came through the little wooden door, Sikki welcomed each one and made her feel important," Cox tells us. "Sikki had a way of doing that, always with contagious laughter. Each woman was handed a cup of tea as she came in, and from all the times before, each had her own special place to sit on the floor of the cozy sod home."

This simple premise opens a window into the personal lives of these women. They talk about their families, faith, food, values and legends from the past. Their tales, and other stories that Sikki reflects upon but keeps to herself, shed more light on Inupiat values and village life than reams of anthropologists' dissertations.

The year was 1925, and the place was Ipnatchiaq, the small Seward Peninsula village that English-speakers call Deering. Sikki and her community were in the midst of a huge transition, moving from the traditional past toward the Americanized future.

Sikki appreciates the introduced advantages of kerosene lamps and colorful cloth, even as she frets about missionaries taking decision-making away from the villagers. She and her friends grapple with ways to meld and pass on the best of both worlds.

For Sikki, concern for the future takes the form of concern for her grandson, Walter (Emuk), who lives with her due to complications in the child's mother's life. The widowed Sikki yearns to find a man to mentor the boy in the style of the old "qasqi" or men's house, where generations of youngsters learned hunting and social skills from their elders. She urges Walter to attend the missionaries' school, even as she wonders if its teachings have relevance to their lives.

Sikki and her friends come alive in the telling. Far from being exotic ethnographic examples confronting cultural ab-stractions, they are real people, and likeable, too.

The book dwells mostly on women's lives, illuminating their roles as daughters, mothers, wives, grandmothers, tradition bearers and hard workers. Sikki wryly notes that although men believe they are more important, women are taught to intuitively keep everything together. They put up food, make clothing and plan for the uncertain future. She and her friends observe that the new imported ways, for all their shortcomings, liberated them from the crushing burden of taboos that constrained women of previous generations.

The book also, indirectly, reflects on the value of art in real life. The women's drawing and storytelling draws the community together, comforts the grieving and edifies the young.

"The Storytellers' Club" lacks the drama and linear plot of most books, including "The Winter Walk." Instead, it offers a subtle, humble and — ultimately — deeply moving look at a unique way of life at the edge of the world. The book's construction of stories within stories, reflected through varied viewpoints, has cummulative effectiveness.

By the book's end, the women of the storytellers' club feel like our own friends. They earn our respect and admiration. These are wise women, with much to teach us, as when Sikki's friend Uto tells the group, "Every person in our village who has held a small baby or a small child has experienced the power of gentleness. It's only when we become grandparents that we realize that we, too, are capable of a God-given gentleness, and then we give thanks."

Cox, a retired teacher in Fairbanks, has paid a touching homage to her father and great-grandmother. She also has pulled off the unusual feat of conveying a wealth of cultural information without ever being didactic.

"The Storytellers' Club" is, in a quiet way, a wise and moving book. It is also well written, upbeat and entertaining. If you have a special granny in your life, you might need to buy two copies so you can give her one.

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

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