The Great Death by John E Smelcer

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The Great Death by John E Smelcer

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A short and beautiful novel with themes of family loyalty and survival against the odds. Set in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, it's full of rich images and the courage of two little girls.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Andersen Press
ISBN: 1842709194

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As Western Europeans settled Alaska, they brought with them diseases against which the indigenous people had no natural immunity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, fully two thirds of all Alaska natives perished from a pandemic of measles, smallpox, and influenza. No community was spared. In most cases, half of a village's population died within a week. In some cases, there were no survivors. It was the end of an ancient way of life. Natives still refer to the dreadful period as the Great Death.

Millie and Maura don't die, but everyone else they know does - their parents, their extended family, their friends. The Great Death arrived at their village via a man from a village downriver and within a week they are the only survivors. They know they can't spend the winter alone in the deserted village and they know that it won't be long before the bears come calling. They know they need to find somewhere new to call home and they also know that they need to find it before winter truly sets in.

And so they bury their parents as best they can. They pack bundles of food and tools as best they can. And they paddle, as best they can, into the completely unknown. The river is treacherous. The weather is treacherous. And sometimes, the people they meet are treacherous too. It's an epic journey, and they are just two very small, newly-orphaned, little girls.

Oh my, but this is a lovely book. It's full of courage and family loyalty and great tenderness. It's also a riveting adventure and you are rooting for Millie and Maura, so young and so horribly struck by tragedy, right from the start. It's told in lyrical and elegant prose without a word wasted and the overwhelming beauty of the harsh but beautiful Alaskan landscape rises vividly from the page. There's also an homage to a peaceful and enduring culture destroyed by ignorance and greed.

We know a great deal about the horrors and destructions of the native peoples in what is now the United States - the Sioux, the Apache, the Comanche - but we know much less about what happened further north, in Canada and Alaska. This story is perhaps less violent, but it's equally heartbreaking, and it needs to be told. Smelcer himself has a unique perspective since he is an Ahtna Athabaskan Indian, and he brings this perspective to bear in an absorbing, lyrical and beautiful novel. It's short, but it's very, very sweet.

My thanks to the nice people at Andersen Press for sending the book.

Of course, the ultimate Alaskan survival story isn't about two little girls. If you haven't acquainted yourself with Call of the Wild by Jack London already, you should do so at once. Other stories featuring this atmospheric but harsh landscape include Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, and the young adult book Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is the story of all the calamities Europeans visited on the Native Americans.

Buy The Great Death by John E Smelcer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Death by John E Smelcer at

Buy The Great Death by John E Smelcer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Death by John E Smelcer at


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