Long ago the Guardians protected the Chukchi people of Siberia. These beautiful dogs became the locus for their community and culture. But that was long ago.
Thalasinos’ debut novel toggles between the stories of Jeaantaa and Rosalie, set nearly a century apart. Jeaantaa’s story begins in 1919 Siberia and is framed against the impending invasion of Stalin’s Red Army, which ultimately displaces her Chukchi people and destroys much of their culture. Rosalie’s story, set in Wisconsin, concerns the cultural effects of displacement. Both young women have endured heartbreak as Jeaantaa’s childhood sweetheart dies the day they are affianced, and Rosalie’s husband belittles and abuses her. Both are estranged from their communities, with Jeaantaa blamed for her beloved’s death and Rosalie too shy to fit in. When Rosalie sees a maltreated husky at the local junkyard, however, her immediate bond with the animal establishes a link across time. Rosalie begins to fall into reveries, dreaming of a woman in a skin dress and boots, standing on the sea ice, hair waving in the screaming wind and mourning the loss of so much, so many. Haunted by Jeaantaa, Rosalie gains the courage to rescue the husky, which enrages her husband but releases in Rosalie a passion she had never suspected. Soon, Jan and Dave hire Rosalie as a dog handler for their dog sled—racing kennel, and Rosalie’s talents are abundantly evident. Just as Jeaantaa served as the Keeper of the Guardians, so does Rosalie seem to become a modern-day husky whisperer. Thalasino’s evocations of Siberian and Wisconsin seascapes and landscapes are deft and richly embroidered. Her characters hold tantalizing potential (particularly the troubled and secretive Dan Villieux), yet even the connection between Jeaantaa and Rosalie remains oddly forced rather than fated.
Beautifully drawn and emotionally resonant, this book unfortunately stumbles over its unrealized characters.