Each summer during the 1930s and '40s, men from Japan, the Philippines, Russia, Scandinavia, and Washington state flocked to the Yup’ik hamlet of Nushagak Village in Alaska’s Bristol Bay to work in local canneries.
For well-trained fisherperson Anne Girl and her mother, Marulia, both Native Alaskans, the arrival of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian named John Nelson sets the wheels of profound change into motion. Teenage Anne Girl starts seeing John in secret, but eventually the liaison becomes public. Disapproving Marulia wants to know if John is “good for anything” since he seems ill-suited for both sea and factory life. Even more concerning, Marulia worries that John may be an undercover missionary since he's staying with Frederik and Nora Killweather, Christian evangelists eager to bring the populace to Christ. But Anne Girl doesn’t care. John is an ace storyteller, and she finds his intricate tales enchanting. Soon, the two marry and have a child. Throughout, Anne Girl continues to fish and teaches her daughter everything she knows about preparing nets, catching salmon, readying a boat to set sail, and reading tides and weather patterns. John, meanwhile, learns to fly and becomes the area’s sole pilot, ferrying food, medicine, mail, and sundries between the remote village and the large trading post in Dillingham. It’s an intriguing and important window into life among an Indigenous people and beautifully illustrates the push and pull of assimilation in pre-state Alaska. At the same time, since the action begins in 1939 and continues into the late 1940s, the narrative’s omission of World War II seems odd. Still, the depiction of the customs and oral traditions of the community make this a fascinating coming-of-age story, touching upon sexuality, gender, death, friendship, alcoholism, and the inevitability of cultural shifts.
A compelling, lyrical, and resonant debut.