The year was 1892. The place was a sod hut at an isolated, winter hunting camp upriver from Norton Sound. A young Inupiaq mother, Qutuuq, sat beside her husband, who had just died after a mysterious, lingering ailment.
"Qutuuq asked her 9-year-old son, 'Savokgenaq, shall we stay here and die like Papa?'
"He answered, 'No, I don't want to die.'"
That poignant opening scene launches the tale of "The Winter Walk." The book narrates Qutuuq's predicament and how she resolved it.
It is a tale as dramatic as any in fiction, but it is true. Author Loretta Outwater Cox explains in her introduction how her mother, Ruth Savok Outwater, told it to her.
"More than 20 years ago, when I was expecting twins, my mother came to me and told me a story that I'd never heard before. It concerned my great-grandmother, an Inupiaq woman named Qutuuq, and an extraordinary overland journey toward the Bering Sea coast that Qutuuq made with her two small children in the winter of 1892. The account had been handed down, generation to generation, in our family, and my mother had decided that it was time to give me this story. I would learn about the great danger and the terrible hunger they endured. But more than that, my mother told me the true cost of that long winter walk that began when Qutuuq's son, my grandfather, said, 'Mama, I want to live.'"
From the opening scene, Cox takes us back in time to describe, through the memories of the grieving, pregnant widow, how she and her two children reached such a desperate pass. The descriptions provide a rich portrait of Inupiaq life at that time and place, enhanced by a personal touch. As we read how Qutuuq and her husband, Kipmal-ook, pursued traditional activities such as hunting, processing pelts, building shelters and making tundra tea, they come to life not as anthropologists' case studies, but as realistic individuals working to provide for each other and their children. The book even hints at classic in-law conflicts, albeit with an Inupiaq twist.
"The Winter Walk" is a small book in dimensions and length, and it does not take long to read. The core of the story could be simply told, but filling it out with the imagined details of how its people lived was a wise choice. Cox evokes the lives and times of Qutuuq's family members with a rare subtlety.
She shows the Inupiaq at the historic juncture when foreign ways were just beginning to influence their lifestyle. Kipmalook and Qutuuq were trapping to earn money for the trading post at Chaqtuliq (Shaktoolik), where they obtained new-fangled goods such as a rifle, metal sewing needles and the crackers the children loved to eat alongside their dried fish and meat. The author shows how the couple taught their children admirable traditional values such as respect and patience, but she does not shirk from showing the drawbacks of the old ways, such as the vulnerability to disease and starvation.
Through the relationship of man and wife, Cox shows the division of labor between the sexes and their utter interdependence. Without Qutuuq's skills as a skin sewer, Kipmalook would lack the clothing essential to arctic survival. And when illness felled Kipmalook, his family faced starvation.
After Cox brings us close to this family, her narrative returns to the crisis point and Qutuuq's crucial decision to try to trek back to the village with her children.
"Qutuuq couldn't believe how hard it was to take those first few steps, but she knew that to stay in the safety of the sod house meant they would starve, because there was no one to hunt," she writes. "To go out in this weather with two small children, not knowing how long it would take them to walk down to the village, was a serious break in the rules of living in the cold country, but it was the only thing that she could do."
She set off with her 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. They took an ulu, cooking stones (for heating water) and as many furs as they could carry to shelter them when they slept. They took no food, because none was left. Qutuuq knew the trip would be a risky ordeal, but it turned out even worse than she could have anticipated.
The tale reads like a legend, so it is startling and moving to encounter photographs of the principal characters and their descendents on its final pages.
Cox, a retired educator from Nome, now lives in Fairbanks. This is her first book and in it she lets her readers share deeply personal material. In the process, she provides a story that combines rare heart with authenticity.
"The Winter Walk" is a tragedy about mature issues, but it also is a warm and inspiring saga of familial devotion. Its depiction of love between husband and wife and between parents and children transcends any bounds of culture and makes this an extraordinarily touching little book.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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