"People of the Whale"
(Reviewed by Mike Frechette DEC 4, 2008)
“Thomas didn’t call. He was a lie. His cells were all lies and his being was made up of lies. Lies couldn’t call out the way truth does. They feared discovery. They were constantly confused and had soft edges that overlapped.”
Thomas Witka Just was born under an auspicious sign, but he makes a poor decision in early adulthood that changes the course of his life forever. In Linda Hogan’s recent novel, People of the Whale, the birth of Thomas is accompanied by an octopus emerging from the sea and literally walking on land. This event – biblical in its miraculous implausibility – might imply that Thomas is destined to be a great and honorable whaler like his grandfather Witka. Thomas descends from the A’atsika People, a Native community living on the margins of the American Northwest who traditionally have depended on the whale in the same way that the Plains Indians depended on the buffalo. The tribe is divided between the “old people” who revere ancestral tradition and the youth who have the American hunger for money and power, a situation that seems to get to the heart of the contemporary Native experience. In a drunken fit of patriotism, Thomas, swayed by friends envious of his destiny and abilities, enlists in the military at the height of the Vietnam War, squandering his potential to live up to his namesake. As he says to his wife Ruth, “I’m not just an Indian. I’m an American, too.” What Thomas does not realize is that this decision will further fracture his personal identity in unimaginable ways and lead to a life of guilt, anguish, and isolation.
Instead of returning from war like his friends, Thomas is left behind in Vietnam. He falls in love with Ma, a village woman, and ends up fathering a daughter named Lin. Years later, the military discovers he is alive and brings him home, uprooting him from his new life and forcing him to confront his past. His wife Ruth, who delivered their son shortly after Thomas’s departure to Vietnam, has developed into a strong, self-possessed woman. She spends her days fishing and defending the tribal ways in the face of corrupt council members like Dwight, the same friend who convinced Thomas to join the military.
Dwight and his cronies, eager to make money, have organized an expedition to slay a whale and sell the meat to the Japanese. For the old people of the tribe, such an expedition violates the spiritual dimension of the whale hunt. As they say about Dwight and his fellow hunters, “They haven’t praised the whales since they were children, if then. They haven’t cleansed themselves. Some of them have been to war and not yet purified themselves…Nothing good will come of this.” The expedition brings Thomas out of hiding with the hope of healing his divided self and restoring himself to the traditions of his people. However, as prophesied by the elders, the expedition takes a tragic turn, leading to personal and environmental catastrophe that unfolds over the course of the book’s remaining pages.
In its simplest sense, People of the Whale is a story about healing divisions and correcting imbalances. Instances of division abound throughout the book, and Thomas is the novel’s most evident example of a divided self. Already torn between tradition and modernity and America and the A’atsika Nation, he also becomes torn between America and Vietnam, two wives, two children, two families. The division is so profound and exponential that it almost completely eradicates his sense of self: “He had two lives. Now they both seemed as if they belonged to another man. He’d been taken away from both of those lives. He was a stolen person. What remained was not him.” Besides division, the novel presents instances of imbalance as well – specifically, environmental imbalance. After the expedition, a curse falls over the land as a punishment for the brutal way in which the whale hunt was executed. A severe drought plagues the A’atsika People, and a rain priest is called upon to end the suffering, a character who turns out to be much more than meets the eye.
Though set in a specific cultural context, Thomas’s struggle is a universal one. It is a struggle for redemption and wholeness in a world that seeks to fracture communities, nations, and individuals. Hogan clearly is an experienced author, able to manage an engaging plot while depicting the Native experience and showcasing her unique gift with language. It is no surprise that she has published six volumes of poetry; at times, the prose certainly takes on the characteristics of verse, and the text is rich with classical allusions. Furthermore, she develops her setting and characters with such depth that even her villains can be forgiven in the end; any reader can empathize with Dwight’s desire for money and power given the impoverishment and marginalization of his community. In short, for anyone searching for a thoughtful book about the Native experience with a universal message and theme, People of the Whale is a must-read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from People of the Whale at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (1995)
- The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir (2001)
- Calling Myself Home (1978)
- A Piece of Moon (1981)
- Daughters, I Love You (1981)
- Eclipse (1983)
- Seeing Through the Sun (1985)
- Savings: Poems (1988)
- Red Clay: Poems and Stories (1991)
- Book of Medicines (1993)
- Rounding the Human Corners: Poems (2008)
With Brenda Peterson:
- Initimate Nature: The Bond of Woman and Animals (1998)
- The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World (2000)
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- Official website for Linda Hogan
- Wikipedia page for Linda Hogan
- Curled Up review for People of the Whale
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About the Author:
Linda Hogan was born in 1947, in Denver, Colorado and grew up in Oklahoma. She obtained a M.A. degree from University of Colorado at Boulder in 1978. Hogan has played a prominent role in the development of contemporary Native American poetry, particularly in its relationship to environmental and anti-nuclear issues. She often incorporates a feminist perspective in her verse through description of women's lives and feelings. She is a poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Mean Spirit. Her other honors include an American Book Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches English at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lives in Idledale.
She taught at the University of Minnesota, and has been an associate professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1989. Linda Hogan, is currently a Lecturer in International Peace Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.