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Book Review: Velma Wallis, “Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival (Harper Perennial, 1994), Pp. 128.

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Forgiveness…Patience…Unconditional Love…. These are all the themes Wallis brings forth through this remarkable tale of two women. What I want to do in this book review is give brief highlights of each chapter and then give my recommendations!

About the Author, Velma Wallis: “born in 1960 in Fort Yukon,  remote village of about 650 people in interior Alaska…Wallis later moved to her father’s trapping cabin, a twelve-mile walk from the village. She lived alone there intermittently for a dozen years, learning traditional skills of hunting and trapping…” (128). This story is a tale her mother told her that she has added some of her own flavor too.

Introduction: In the intro. Velma Wallis is recounting how she came upon the story of the two old women. In Alaska, where she is from, her family had a story that had been pasted down from generation to generation. Wallis states, “This story of the two old women is from a time long before the arrival of the Western culture, and has been handed down from generation to generation, from person to person, to my mother, and then to me…This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability—certainly not age— to accomplish in life what one must” (xvii).

Chapter One: In chapter one were learn of a band of Native Americans in Alaska that are suffering from starvation and a harsh winter. Wallis refers to these people as “nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska” (1). In this band there were two old women who were basically taken care of by members in the band.  These two characters are the main characters of the story.  Ultimately, the band decides to leave the women behind, due to the lack of starvation and devastating winter conditions— they felt it was best for the band. So they decided to leave the elderly. The two women were heartbroken and in shock.

Chapter Two:  In chapter two the women are hopeful at least to give it their all to live rather than to sit and die. not trying at all. Tenacity and perseverance are other themes that permeate this story. The strength of these women is were the story begins to head.

Chapter Three: Chapter three thus becomes about mobility and creating a counter narrative that involves persistence and women working together to overcome obstacles and survive.  This narrative of women helping women to rise up and not giving up on one another is a contradictory narrative to Eurocentrism, deterministic and individualist narratives that are so common in history.

Chapter Four: The two old women make it to their destination and remember when they were younger how old women were left behind. By persisting, these two old women were breaking the chain of being left to die and dying they were surviving. Wallis writes, “the hunting skills they learned in their youth reemerged and each day the women would walk farther from the shelter to set their rabbit snares…” (63). The way that these women survived was by remembering how to take care of themselves—they were not hopeless even though The People had deemed them to be.

Chapter 5: Chapter five the two women begin to create their own society and new way of life but there was still something missing. The author writes, “soon the women fell into a daily routine of collecting wood, checking rabbit snares, and melting snow for water. They sat evenings by the campfire, keeping each other company” (83). But even so they were growing lonely…

Chapter 6: At this point The People are still struggling and did not transcend from a place of surviving to thriving. Instead they are struggling and turn back to the place where they had abandon the two old women (85). Wallis states, “The People were suffering, and this winter found them on the verge of hopelessness” (86).  As they returned to the place where they had left the old women the chief notices that something is off, so he sends someone to check and look around for the old women. The birch tree had strips off of the trees and this lent a clue to The People that there was someone, maybe another band, but regardless there was someone else out there (90).

Chapter 7: The two old women hear their names being called and decide to stand ready to be found. They are afraid of The People now but know they will be found. What becomes blatantly clear at this point in the tale is the themes of  transformation and strength. The two women, coming from a place of rejection, are now re-envisioned. Understandably, both the women are apprehensive of The People coming and finding them and taking all their took.  They set boundaries and limits to being discovered and how they now felt about their band. 

Chapter 8: The final chapter deals with respect. Wallis writes, “in this time of hardship the news of their [the two old women] survival filled the band with a sense of hope and awe” (112).  They are not just some old women. They are survivors and individuals to look up to and respect. “The People had thought themselves to be strong, yet they had been weak. And the two old ones whom they thought to be the most helpless and useless had proven themselves to be strong” (115). This speaks volumes to the way society not only sees elderly persons but women also.  This tale re-writes that narrative. Wallis states, “after everyone had been reunited, the chief appointed the two women to honorary positions within the band…they enjoyed their newly found independence. So The People showed their respect for the two women by listening to what they had to say” (122). Again, this is a different narrative and the two old women become an allegory for not only older women but any age of women.

I would recommend this to just about anyone. Some subjects in particular this book may pertain too may include but not limited to: women and gender studies, history, feminist studies, cultural theory/history, and social studies. This would be a great book for children as well as college students. Its expansive nature makes it a wonderful piece of literature.

10/10

 

 

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Book Review: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892),Pp. 24.

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A compelling and fascinating short story, Charlotte Gilman, takes the reader on an intense journey through the struggles of women’s autonomy over their minds and bodies. Set in Gilman’s historical moment this short story discusses the damaging consequences of women being treated secondary to their male counterparts. Gilman’s semi-autobiographical narrative discusses her experiences with depression, a controlling husband, lack of autonomy, and finally liberation.  Gilman tell’s a story of a woman who is given no name. This no name woman is experiencing something that she cant quite put her finger on. Her doctor, who is also her husband, tells her she is just acting “foolish” and “hysterical.” He prescribes her rest for three months in hopes of helping her feel more “normal.” This reference Gilman makes to the historical reality of how  women’s mental health was treated in the nineteenth-century is spot on. Gilman is pushing back at Silas Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” approach that was prescribed to women who were acting “foolish” or “hysterical” in the 1800s.

Gilman narrates the no name woman resting, as prescribed, but in turn going stir crazy.  All the while, her husband continues to dismiss her and insists on her resting.  The woman with no name is left to secretly write wishes and desires down on paper.  If her husband found her writing it would be going against his prescribed rest.  Being locked up in her room the woman with no name becomes obsessed with the room—specifically the yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper becomes a simile for society. 

In a bizarre turn, the woman with no name starts to sees a woman inside the wallpaper.

Gilman allows her protagonist to discusses this woman she sees in the wallpaper as her true desire. A desire for friendship, companionship, and even a career.  By the end of the story she is angry and tired, maybe even “sicker” than before all the “rest” she was prescribed.  In a final act of rebellion, the woman with no name, pulls the wallpaper almost completely off the walls and liberates the woman behind the wallpaper. She liberates herself.

Finally, this texts becomes a stand in for discussing issues Gilman wants to illuminate in  1892. This short story becomes the platform to do just that. The author ultimately brings up topics that were quite racy for the times such as: women’s equality, mental health issues, female heath, women’s desires and career opportunities.  Gilman also pushes back on narratives that relegated women to “hysterical” beings and discusses the true nature of gender oppression in a toxic masculine society.  This is a must read for historians. I would also recommend this to anyone who is interested in a fascinating short read that examines the past and the legacy of male oppression and women’s liberation. 

10/10

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“You ran away to find freedom, and you found it. You made it. Now you gotta tell it. You gotta figure out how to tell the story.” — Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha