Lately, I’ve been reading books that feature older protagonists. Two Old Women by Velma Wallis definitely meets that requirement, but it’s quite different from anything else I’ve read.
Starving and with winter approaching, the nomadic People prepare to once again follow the caribou. But this morning is different from the others. On this day the chief declares, “We are going to leave the old ones behind.” The two old women sit by the fire, staring in disbelief. Hadn’t they helped the People by tanning hides and sewing garments? Yes, they’d complained of aches and pains, but they were not close to dying. Although Sa’ had lived seventy-five years and her friend Ch’idzigyaak eighty, they were not ill or blind; they were not frail. Yet their kinsmen chose to abandon them.
Afraid to upset the tribe’s delicate balance and numb with hunger and cold, none of the People object to the chief’s decree. Only the daughter and grandson of Ch’idzigyaak give the women what aid they can—a packet of moose hide and a hatchet—before following the others.
That is how the drama begins.
Drawing on knowledge gained from the past, the women vow to survive. As Sa’ says, “… if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” In their struggle through the winter, Wallis reveals the harshness of their daily lives, while they work to overcome their fears, sadness, humiliation, and physical limitations.
This Athabascan Indian legend, set in the Yukon River area of Alaska, has been passed down from mothers to daughters for many generations. Told in simple language, Velma Wallis addresses issues of leadership, loyalty, self-reliance, betrayal, friendship, determination, forgiveness, and survival. The details of the women’s resourcefulness and their ability not only to survive but to actually thrive held my interest on every page. The book left me inspired.
I recommend this book for children as well as adults. It’s a captivating story and a short read—the edition I have is 140 pages long, including a brief history of the Gwich’in people, and the print is large. The text is accompanied by pen and ink illustrations by James Grant.
HarperCollins, the book’s publisher, provides a reading guide: http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?isbn13=9780060723521&displayType=readingGuide
Various other websites offer study guides that can be used in teaching this story.