Review of 'Minuk': Girl's tale gives insight into Yup'ik life

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2003

"Minuk" is the story of a 12-year-old Alaskan Yup'ik girl. It begins in the spring of 1890 - told as if remembered by an adult woman who survives a plague the following year.

The heroine of this wonderfully imagined historical fiction is a girl who wants to know things and often wonders "what if." This makes her the perfect heroine to inspect clotheslines for the first time, and to visit the newly arrived missionaries who have built a strange log house in her village on the Kuskokwim River.

"Minuk" is one in a series of books, called "Girls of Many Lands," for girls on the cusp of adolescence. The others in the series are "Isabel: Taking Wing" (set in England in 1592), "Cecile: Gates of Gold" (set in France in 1711), "Spring Pearl: The Last Flower" (set in China in 1857), and "Neela: Victory Song" (set in India in 1939). Each is by a different author.

The author of "Minuk" is the talented Kirkpatrick Hill, previously known for "Toughboy and Sister" and two other books set in the Alaskan Bush and portraying Athabascan children. Hill was raised in Fairbanks, and spent 30 years as an elementary school teacher in the Alaskan Bush. She now spends the winter in Fairbanks and the summer in her log cabin in Ruby on the Yukon River.

Kirkpatrick Hill grew up along the Yukon, where Russians did not penetrate until 1845. Thus she was able to interview people who still remembered what their parents or grandparents, aunts or aunties had to say about the first whites in the region.

Her heroine is a fictional character, but in this fiction she has used to good affect many factual happenings that she researched in journals and documents of the time. These happenings include clashes over traditional and introduced religion, education and medical practices, and introduced diseases.

To add verisimilitude to the book, it concludes with a selection of photographs such as a view of the Kuskokwim landscape, a group of five Yupik girls in 1884, girls at a mission school, and two Yup'ik girls today. Some of these photos come from missionary archives. One photo chosen - the Russian Orthodox cathedral at Sitka - is only tangentially relevant to life in the Kuskokwim region.

Of more use is the glossary of Yup'ik words. By listing words like the name for a house used by women, the name for a knife for women, the name for a house for men, and others, it makes clear the gender separation of traditional Yup'ik life. This separation will be one of the most mysterious parts of the story to modern girls.

"Minuk" and its companion doll are part of a window display downtown at Imagination Station. Pleasant Co., the publisher of this book, is best known for its period dolls and their expensive accoutrements - designed to persuade grandparents that they are buying educational materials.

However, the book stands on its own as an excellent portrait of life in Alaska for a curious 12-year-old, and should be valued for that fact - not for the doll it "illustrates." It will appeal to girls who have enjoyed Joan W. Blos' "A Gathering of Days: A New Englad Girl's Journal, 1830-32."

Kirkpatrick Hill is to be congratulated for her success in imagining "what it must have been like to first see mirrors, cloth and writing, and to taste sugar and bread." Teens who are growing up in cities and want to understand the slippery concept of subsistence will grasp it much better after reading this book, which flows along with mesmerizing ease as it describes contrasting 19th-century Alaskan lifestyles in great detail.

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