Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Two Old Women by Velma Harris
Two Old Women by Alaskan native Velma Wallis is a prime example of orature(which is the blending of oral stories and literature). The story is compelling as well as refreshing. Most readers will be able to attest to the fact that the average book features a lead character in their youth or the prime of their lives. Books overflow the exploits of the young, with some notable exceptions like Migeul de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. However, even in Don Quixote there is a sense of warning regarding older heroes and heroines. Not only does Alonso Quixano(the lead of Don Quixote) suffer many humiliating defeats due to his romantic notions of chivalry and knighthood, but he eventually dies a depressed and defeated man because of it. When I was younger and first read Don Quixote, I was left with the impression that the book was a cautionary tale to anyone who took romantic ideas too seriously, especially people past their prime. Admittingly, it has been a while since I read Cervante’s infamous work so I cannot write from the benefit of a new perspective. What I can write with utmost certainty however, is that Wallis’s book left me an antonym feeling than what I felt with Don Quixote. That is to say, Two Old Women led me to believe that anything is possible, despite society’s preconceptions regarding your age and despite the value others place on your life.
The tale is one passed down to Wallis from her mother, and presumably passed down to her mother from her grandmother. It chronicles the journey of two elderly women—Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak—who are left behind by their tribe in the dead of winter. The tribe—or The People, as they are known—are going through a time of great suffering, with food scare and the winter harsh. Traditionally, elders are taken care of by the younger members of the People. Infact, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’are known to be complainers and whiners, yet still they are taken care off. However, when the people are starved and their minds are filled with fear and anxiety for the future, a drastic decision is made—the chief elects to leave the women behind, so as not to burden the already suffering people with having to look after them. Wallis writes, "In those days, leaving the old behind in times of starvation was an unknown act", though she also adds that it is the first time for this particular group. The horror of what starvation has driven them to is made even greater when it is revealed that Ch’idzigyaak has a daughter and grandson in the tribe.
What happens then is a story of inspiration and perseverance. Against all odds, the two old women manage to survive the harsh winter, deciding that they’d rather die trying than waiting for death to catch up with them. They prove their usefulness and work youth into their bones once more, using skills that they never thought they would use again in their old age. This book really is a lovely read, though it is a very short one. It really is more like a long short story or a novella, though the font is big and the pages small. My edition, which is the Tenth Anniversary Edition, has 140 pages. It took me a little over an hour to finish, though I felt that it was an appropriate length for such a story. As all orature originates as an oral story, it is fair to expect that a tale that might seem long when spoken will be much shorter when transcribed. It is like a children’s story in this sense, though the story itself is relatable to people of all ages. If you’re looking for an example of heroism and perseverance at it’s finest or are just searching for a quick book to take on a short trip or to read while waiting in line, you might want to consider Two Old Women by Velma Harris. I had to read this particular story for a class, though it in no way felt like an assignment but rather a pleasant reprieve from stuffier, academic books.