Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village.
The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the title indicates, the story concerns two old women, Sa’ (75 years old) and Ch’idzigyaak (80 years old). When was the last time you read a novel about the adventures of elderly women? These women have a habit of complaining about their aches and pains as an excuse to avoid hard work. During a cold autumn, at a time of scarce food, the chief of their band decides that the women must be left behind as the younger members move on in search of food.
At first the old women are stunned, and even resigned to dying. Yet they have to admit that they are still capable of hard work. With the help of some tools and supplies they have been left with, they successfully hunt and trap small game. Still, the long, cold winter looms ahead. Will they be able to survive? They decide to set up a more permanent winter camp along a creek teeming with fish that Ch’idzigyaak remembered visiting years ago, and begin their trek to this location.
In writing this book, Velma Wallis relied on her own skills and knowledge of surviving off the land in a remote area. I enjoyed the descriptions of how the women went about the tasks of daily living: maintaining the fire, making snowshoes, using caribou skins to fashion a sled, and digging a temporary snow shelter.
The writing style is simple and direct. Here is a paragraph just after the women learn they are to be left behind:
The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death—to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength. Two weak old women stood no chance against such a rule. The news left them without words or action and no way to defend themselves. (p. 7)
Illustrations by Athabaskan Indian artist Jim Grant help readers picture the characters and scenes. This lovely, inspiring book in the vein of My Side of the Mountain can be enjoyed by middle and high school students as well as adults.