A review of "Neeluk: An Eskimo Boy in the Days of the Whaling Ships" by Frances Kittredge (Alaska Northwest Books, $18.95 hardcover, $11.95 soft cover.)
"Neeluk" is a children's book that waited six decades to be born. From 1900 to 1902, writer Frances Kittredge lived in the village of Wales, Ak., with her sister and brother-in-law, Ellen and William Lopp. The Lopps knew the Inupiaq language, taught school, and advised on reindeer herding. During her two years in Wales, Kittredge took a special interest in the lives of the villagers. In 1939, she gathered her notes and wrote a book about 7-year-old Neeluk, a fictional boy.
Kittredge realized she needed authentic illustrations, and right in her own household she had a potential artist. She commissioned Inupiat artist Howard Rock, born in Point Hope, north of Wales. Today Rock is known as an activist and founder of the Tundra Times, but then he was studying art at the University of Washington and living with the Lopps in Seattle.
Kittredge died in 1940. Her great-niece, Kathleen Lopp Smith of Seattle, inherited three of Rock's paintings, and learned from her parents about the stories that went with them. It took Smith several years to transcribe the stories, locate all the paintings and get slides to show to publishers.
"Neeluk" is a calendar of late 1800's seasonal adventures, starting with July, "the warming-up time when flowers bloom and Eskimos go on trips for trading and fishing." Neeluk's twelve adventures are often experiences that teach him about caution, patience, waiting, trading, sharing, subsistence and being prepared. They include watching women ice fishing and sewing, coasting on a sled "like a big boy," watching whale hunters bring in a catch, hungry times when there is little food, finding a lost needle, keeping dogs from walrus meat and learning all the uses of a seal. Neeluk's extended family reassures him about his progress in growing up, and coaches him without demeaning him.
All youngsters are interested in what Mom does, what Dad brings home, playing, big, fierce animals and what's for dinner. On one level, "Neeluk" is this kind of book, warmly welcomed in every home. On another level, it is what can only be called an instant classic - a book that will teach all its readers what daily life was like in an Eskimo village in Alaska more than a century ago. To have those lessons from a seven-year-old's point of view, illustrated by someone who grew up in a family of seal and whale hunters, is priceless.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org