A review of "Goodbye My Island" by Jean Rogers (Alaska Northwest Books, paper, $9.95, 86 pages).
While the rest of the nation mourned the assassination of President John Kennedy, the Eskimos of King Island were caught up with the threat of relocation from their traditional winter home.
Their story is told in "Goodbye My Island" by Juneau author Jean Rogers, illustrated by Juneau artist Rie Munoz. This children's book is set during the 1963-64 school year, as villagers harvest the Bering Strait ecosystem for food and materials.
The two main, contrasting voices are those of Esther Atoolik and Dixon. Esther, 12, is appointed "reporter" by the teachers, with the duty of writing in the school log the most important things that happen each week. The text of this log helps to knit the story together. Dixon, 11, is the nephew of teachers Roger and Marie. Because this is his first time out of his home state of Wisconsin, he asks many questions and wants to try Eskimo pursuits like ice fishing. In a typical exchange reported by Esther, the island kids express their love of beluga stew, while Dixon says turkey is the best bird for Thanksgiving.
Rogers does not beat around the bush about alcoholism or tuberculosis, but the main concerns of the book are describing specifics of the King Island lifestyle such as collecting seabird eggs, the seasonal wait for walrus to return, the comforts of knitting and tea, storing food in an ice cellar and crawling through the tunnel leading into the clubhouse. The tunnel helps to "fool the cold."
On the other hand, Esther tells about new influences such as information about germs and toothbrushing and new foods like popcorn balls.
A mood of sadness pervades this tale because all the characters know that this will be the last seasonal migration from Nome to King Island by the villagers in their oomiaks. Because of the declining school population, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will no longer fund a school there yet the children must go to school, and the closest school is on the mainland in Nome. Furthermore, because of the debts run up at the village co-op store, there will be no way to get supplies regularly.
The book concludes with Esther thinking, "I want to see my home again as I have always done, every year, sure as sure....Inside myself I cry, too, as I say goodbye to my King Island. I know that in my heart there will be tears forever." King Islanders will now live year-round at Nome, although, as an Afterword explains, many return to their island on hunting trips for walrus and seal.
"Goodbye My Island" was first published in hard back by Greenwillow in 1983. This hard cover edition is out of print. It's nice to have this book available in paper to stimulate a new generation of readers to picture a vanishing way of life, and to consider how traditions change.
"Goodbye My Island" is one of two books Rogers wrote about this rocky outpost 35 miles off the coast of Alaska. The other is "King Island Christmas," which is enjoying a revival as an oratorio/musical.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org