What makes this novel political, to my mind, is how it offers a view of community and individualism that is at once exotic to me and written in a way that opens itself to my understanding. Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, has apparently been a best seller, although I only recently heard of it. It is sometimes classified as a book for adults, sometimes for children, perhaps because it’s small. The writer is a Gwich’in Athabascan Indian, born in 1960, and she hasn’t published a lot. I looked for an image of her via Google, and one picture I found was of her a few years back speaking about the sad death of one of her brothers who was homeless and burned to death.
I don’t know her present world or her cultural past, but Two Old Women is wonderful. It is in the form of a legend told by a mother to a daughter. It tells of two elder-women left behind by their nomadic band to die during a time of extremely tight resources. They are not simply victims– indeed, it turns out they have been demanding and lazy for a long time. At the same time, they have rich memories of their own lives and also of how to do things. In fact, their pooled knowledge allows them to do extremely well on their own for a whole year. They accumulate large stores of dried fish and meat, rabbit fur gloves and homemade coats. They are contacted again by their band, who are still starving, and there is guilt and distrust on all sides, and then a slow, painstaking reconciliation. Everyone learns respect, and the two old women learn not to expect always to be taken care of– that they need to share their efforts and knowledge. This is a really interesting happy ending that is about group growth rather than individual fulfillment.