The time is 9,000 years ago. Chagak lives a simple life beneath “Mother Earth Father Sky” in the Aleutian Islands. She helps the other women skin seals, smooth the hides with volcanic rock, sing songs to praise the hunters, and weave curtains and sleeping mats from grass that grows in the area. Her mother creates a special suk for her from bird skins and cormorant feathers to celebrate her transition into womanhood. Chagak is about to be married to a young seal hunter she likes and life is as it should be. Her routine is one that all the women in her village have always had, against the constant background of the roar of the wind and the sea.
One day, while Chagak is gathering berries and grass, her village is attacked and unknown warriors butcher everyone in it, including her betrothed. Her own group is not a war faring tribe; they hunt seals, not people, so she cannot understand the why. As the lone survivor (except for her infant brother) she has the gruesome duty of burying everyone, saving their spirits for the travel to the afterlife. Harrison’s expressive writing reveals the emotional trauma that Chagak endures while dealing with the worst parts of life.
Chagak knows her best chance of continued survival is to summon all her strength, take an ik (small canoe) and find the Whale Hunters village of her mother’s family across the open water. She hopes that her grandfather will take her and her brother in. During her journey, she stops at a beach to rest and encounters an old man, Shuganan, a renowned ivory carver who persuades her to stay. He cares for her as a granddaughter, keeping her safe when he can. Their relationship becomes precious to both of them and they use it to defend against unwelcome visitors who may have been the attackers at Chagak’s former village.
What follows is a saga of ancient rituals of the prehistoric Ice Age, descriptions of infinitely different roles of men and women, splendid tales of the origin of the world as understood by the First Men, and the awakening of a young woman’s spirit. Harrison has created a moving story of jealousy, betrayal, devastating loss, courage, murder, and greed surrounding the beautiful, gentle Chagak. Despite the harsh realities of Chagak’s life dependent on men, some of whom could be (and were) brutal, she learns to survive and even triumph.
“Mother Earth Father Sky” is meticulously researched, with incredible detail about the customs and implements used at the time. A beached whale is reduced to bone and steaks and blubber on the page. We read that fat is carefully simmered, then separated into use for cooking and oiling skins. We learn how ulaqs are constructed and why the ikyaks stay afloat. A recent visit to a Natural History Museum was made more ‘real’ by having read Harrison’s debut novel.
Chagak is only 13 in “Mother Earth Father Sky,” but we can surmise from archeological digs that she would have been considered of marriageable age as soon as she entered puberty. When young children developed enough dexterity/strength to hold a spear or weave a mat, they were trained to acquire life skills that supported the group in some way – skin seals, gather roots and eggs, collect driftwood for roofs, clean bones for clothing and housing. It was a harsh life by today’s standards of dishwashers and big box stores and restaurants, but for them, it was merely life. Chagak had long been a contributing member of her clan.
I ‘met’ Sue Harrison on Twitter and looked into her work, discovering that the prehistoric series, ‘The Ivory Carver Trilogy,’ was out-of-print and hard to find. I persisted in my search because of my interest in the Pacific Northwest and the Aleuts and acquired “Mother Earth Father Sky” through a used book dealer. Now that Harrison has been able to have the novels published as ebooks, I can share the review of this marvelous title.
Please visit www.sueharrison.com for more information about this bestselling author, her other series and projects.