An innovative look at Alaskan culture
A school visit to the community of Ketchikan, Alaska, inspired acclaimed children's author Karen Hesse to write Aleutian Sparrow, a poignant new novel concerning a side of American history few people know about. In 1942, seeking control of the North Pacific, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands. The American government evacuated the Aleut people to the towns of Wrangell and Ketchikan, and within a year American forces had regained control of the land, though many of the Aleuts were not allowed to move back for three years. Vera, who is part Aleut, realizes that her work is to know the ways of the Aleut people, and in this story she records what happens to them. "We are moving you to save you," the American government says. But being relocated a thousand miles away from their beloved island to the "dark suffocation of the forest" around Ketchikan destroys a way of life for the natives. Eventually whooping cough, tuberculosis, measles, mumps and pneumonia kill a quarter of the evacuated population. Despite its tragic subject, Hesse's novel reads lightly, telling young Vera's story in unrhymed verse, a perfect match for her voice. Evon Zerbetz's linocut illustrations, an attractive map and an author's note provide solid support for Hesse's impressionistic verse, and altogether yield an important, attractive volume. It's a bleak story, though. When Vera returns home to Unalaska, her house has been destroyed, and the fishing grounds and beaches are slick with oil. The Aleut culture has been devastated, "not by the enemy," Vera observes, "but by our own countrymen." What little optimism remains is reflected in the last line of the novel: "We will find the will to begin again." As she has done with other outstanding free-verse novels, including the Newbery Medal-winning Out of the Dust, Hesse tackles an important subject, skillfully develops character and setting, and balances dark themes with a poetic voice and a touch of hope. Dean Schneider teaches middle-school English in Nashville.