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Synopsis from GoodReads:
Continuing the sacred tradition of her ancestors, in Once Upon an Eskimo Time Edna Wilder retells a year in her Eskimo mother’s life. Wilder eloquently captures the oral storytelling traditions of her people, and she employs descriptions of the weather and harsh climates of Alaska’s Norton Sound to illustrate the hardiness of her mother’s spirit. Family values, subsistence living, and the cycle’s of life form a narrative that captures the now-vanished lifestyle along the Bering Sea.
I read this while my husband and I spent the summer in Anchorage, Alaska, and it gave me a greater appreciation for the indigenous people of the state. This book takes place much farther north than Anchorage so we didn’t really experience this exact landscape but the author set the scene so beautifully, I felt like I was really there.
Edna Wilder shared this collection of episodes from her mother’s life as a young girl growing up in a traditional Iñupiat village on the Norton Sound. It reads very much like an oral storyteller sharing her family history, which feels like the perfect format for this biography. She also included some traditional tribal fictional stories that I appreciated even though I didn’t always understand them.
What struck me most was the way that this group lived completely in tune with nature. Every chore had a season. Don’t waste anything. Be grateful for what you have. Don’t take more than you need. I was stunned to see that this even extended to sharing with animals. The women of the village would raid a mouse’s winter hoard for nuts or something but they would leave something they had in abundance in its place so that the mouse didn’t suffer a shortage.
The strong sense of family and community was also striking. In such a harsh landscape, each person is expected to pull his or her own weight but they can also count on the community for assistance if they need it.
I could never survive in this environment but reading this book made me wish that our modern society had retained more of these traditional values. Help each other. Work hard. Respect the earth and the creatures surrounding us. It doesn’t seem that difficult and yet here we are.
The oral history feel of this book won’t be for everyone but I highly recommend it if you’re interested. I plan to read the sequel, about the author’s parents meeting for the first time (her father was English) and their life together.
If you liked Once upon an Eskimo Time, you might also like my reviews of
- Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Buy Once upon an Eskimo Time from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or