'Shaman Pass' a worthy follow-up

Anchorage author's new book is the second in series featuring Iñupiaq Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003

It's a cold winter day in the fictional Northwest Arctic village of Chukchi, and the body of Victor Solomon has been found near his ice fishing camp - impaled by an antique wood and carved ivory spear that's more than 100 years old.

Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active has to solve the murder, a crime that also includes the theft of the spear, a mummified body recently returned to Chukchi by the Smithsonian, and an ivory amulet carved in the shape of a snowy owl.

Solving the crime means learning more about his culture for Active, an Iñupiaq Eskimo who was born in Chukchi but raised in Anchorage by white adoptive parents. Some villagers consider Active a naluaqmiiyaaq, which means almost white or an Iñupiaq who tries to act white.

During the course of the book "Shaman Pass," by Anchorage writer Stan Jones, Active is taken on a journey of discovery that includes a lesson about the murder of an ancient Iñupiaq known as Natchiq, a character loosely based on the true-life Iñupiaq prophet Maniilaq who lived in the mid 1800s.

The real life Maniilaq, who was not murdered as the Natchiq character was in this book, predicted the arrival of whites to the area around Kotzebue and a mode of travel that involved fire and air. He also fought the shamans, or angatquq, who ruled the time and the taboos they imposed on the Iñupiat, such as the quarantine of pregnant women.

Jones, who used to work for KOTZ radio in Kotzebue and helped found the Arctic Sounder newspaper that covers the Northwest Arctic and North Slope regions, does a good job writing about the Iñupiat culture. This is his second book featuring Active as the lead character, and both offer readers a nice glimpse into life in the modern Northwest Arctic - where most everyone still lives a subsistence lifestyle with the modern twist of snowmachines, cell phones and kids collecting Pokemon cards.

Jones also is a Bush pilot, so his descriptions of flying in the Northwest Arctic - with winds blowing at 40 knots and having to break loose skis frozen into the ice before takeoff - really give you the feeling that you're in the same plane with Active and Jones' pilot character, Cowboy Decker.

Ever since Tony Hillerman wrote his first mystery novel featuring the Navaho policeman Joe Leaphorn ("The Blessing Way," which was printed in 1970), many authors have tried to duplicate Hillerman's successful formula of writing a novel that was as much an ethnographical and sociological work as a mystery.

Few writers have been able to succeed using Hillerman's formula, with the main reason being they don't have first-hand knowledge of the culture. One Colorado author, Christopher Lane, wrote a series of three or four books featuring an Iñupiaq detective from Barrow that were truly laughable. His books were so full of errors they weren't worth reading - for example, Lane's Iñupiaq detective character has the surname of Attla, which is a Koyukon Athabascan name mainly found near the village of Huslia, and Lane has his detective driving along a road from Barrow to Nuiqsut that doesn't exist.

Jones is much more successful with his Nathan Active series than others who have attempted to recreate the Hillerman formula.

Even though he's been a resident of Anchorage for more than a decade, Jones spent enough time in the Northwest Arctic that he's familiar with village English. By having Active grow up in Anchorage, it's made his main character an outsider in his own home village, which is a good device for explaining the items those who live in the Bush would take for granted.

I had the rare opportunity to see Jones' writing process at work when he was working on his first Active novel, "White Sky, Black Ice," published in 1999. Five years ago Jones and I were in an Anchorage writing group where each month writers brought in a new chapter from their works in progress.

Jones brought in chapters of his book, then called "The Jade Ax" before his publisher changed the title. His chapters were the cleanest and most polished of anyone's in the group. His dialog was cleaner - maybe from the years he spent as a radio reporter transcribing taped interviews - and the dialog does a good job of moving the story along.

As far as mysteries go, I'd rate Jones in the same class with Sitka author John Straley, who I think ranks above Anchorage authors Dana Stabenow and Sue Henry. I've enjoyed both of Jones' novels, and I think "Shaman Pass" is a worthy follow-up novel to "White Sky, Black Ice."

Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.

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