Will to live triumphs in detailed Inupiaq tale

'The Winter Walk' By Loretta Outwater Cox. Alaska Northwest Books. 224 pages. $18.95.

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

The three main characters of "The Winter Walk" are a pregnant Inupiaq woman, Qutuuq, her son Savokgenaq, 9, and her daughter Keenaq, 7. When Qutuuq's husband, Kipmalook, dies at a winter camp far from the main village, the three are stranded. Qutuuq sees the situation as hopeless, but she is given strength to try to follow the frozen river back to the village on the Bering Sea coast by the declaration of her son, the only living male present. When she asks him if they shall remain in their cheerless sod house and perish like his father, Savokgenaq replies, "No, I don't want to die."

The story of this trio's suffering, endurance and ultimate survival in Alaska in 1892 is not unlike that in "Two Old Women" by Velma Wallis, in the gripping children's novel "Death Walk" by Walt Morey and in "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz. (If you are unfamiliar with the latter, it is the tale of prisoners who escaped from a Soviet labor camp and their incredible march out of Siberia across the Gobi Desert, over the Himalayas to freedom in British-controlled India.) Great danger, exposure to the elements and hunger are intrinsic in all these stories.

Forced marches or seemingly impossible treks are so common in folklore as well as literature of all cultures that they have become metaphors for reaching salvation. Take, for example, Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom" set, of course, in Africa and the film "The Long Walk Home," about the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

"The Winter Walk" takes on a special poignancy because Qutuuq is well advanced in pregnancy when her husband dies, and, while she might have sunk down in despair and allowed herself to starve if she had been alone, she has the lives of two young children on her hands.

It would be a disservice to the story to give its details here. The reader should be allowed to happen upon them as he or she turns the pages of this wonderful book.

However, it is good to know the background of the story and that it is based on historic events. The author of the book, Loretta Outwater Cox, is an Inupiaq woman who was born in Nome. She holds a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in education administration. A mother and grandmother, she taught school in Western Alaska for 23 years and currently resides in Fairbanks.

In the Epilogue to her book, Cox tells what happened to Qutuuq and her two children after they reached their home village. In a subsequent chapter, "Generations," readers are able to see a photograph of Qutuuq as an elder in Koyuk, as well as pictures of her children taken in 1907 in Unalakleet. We learn that Cox is Qutuuq's great-granddaughter and Savokgenaq's granddaughter, and that she heard this story as it was handed down as oral history. She first heard it more than 20 years ago when she was expecting twins.

The value of this particular tale is in the details. It is not a bare outline, but full of observed details of snow and wind and geography, of details about domesticity, about traditional foods and medicine, about child rearing and about attitudes toward males and females and their complimentary roles in Eskimo life. In the chapters about life in the trapping camp before Kipmalook dies, the value of dancing and telling stories and the warmth of the relationships within the little family does much to show what is lost when fate intervenes in the form of a growth on Kipmalook's neck.

"The Winter Walk" is no threadbare tapestry, but a full-bodied, colorful journey - as if based on a journal kept by Qutuuq herself. This rich quality stems, I feel, not so much from "imagining" - as such a story might be when written by someone outside the culture - but from respecting the culture and keeping it alive. It makes "The Winter Walk" memorable in a way that could not be "created" but must be lived.

Readers are fortunate to have access to such a tale of true valor and creative parenting. Qutuuq is a heroine who must be contrasted with nonfiction characters who drive their vehicles into water with their children inside or who shoot their children and claim others did the deed. Put it on your bookshelf beside "Small Sacrifices" by Ann Rule.

• Juneau resident Ann Chandonnet is the author of "Chief Stephen's Parky," "Alaska's Arts, Crafts & Collectibles" and many other titles.

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