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People of the Whale: A Novel Hardcover – August 17, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In telling a story of the fictional A'atsika, a Native people of the American West Coast who find their mythical origins in the whale and the octopus, Hogan (Mean Spirit) employs just the right touch of spiritualism in this engrossing tale. When Thomas Witka Just succumbs to peer pressure and joins the army, then is sent to Vietnam, Ruth Small is pregnant with his child. In an attempt to prevent an atrocity, Thomas kills fellow soldiers and deserts, ultimately blending into the Vietnamese culture and fathering a child, Lin, by Ma, a village girl. In the meantime, Ruth gives birth to their son, Marco Polo, who is said to have the same mystical whaling powers of Thomas's grandfather. Years later, following Thomas's return, Dwight, a ne'er-do-well friend of Thomas's, arranges for the tribe to kill a whale and to sell the meat to the Japanese, a plan that will draw in Marco Polo and set up a confrontation between the whole ensemble. Despite the plot's multiple strands, the story flows smoothly, and Hogan comes up with a powerful, romantic crescendo. (Aug.)
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*Starred Review* “The ocean is a great being”; each whale is a planet, so much life does it sustain. These are truths Thomas and Ruth’s Northwest Pacific Coast tribe once held as self-evident. Sweethearts since childhood, they each inherited a working intimacy with the ocean, and their marriage is joyful until Thomas goes off to fight in Vietnam. Ruth is pregnant when he leaves, and when he doesn’t return, she devotes herself to their son, who possesses the old gift for communing with whales. Thomas reappears when his fellow Vietnam vets decide to break the ban on whale hunting, hoping to reclaim his legacy as the grandson of a legendary whale hunter. But the others are motivated by greed, and tribal traditions are grievously desecrated. Hogan, a poet, essayist, and quintessential econovelist (Power, 1998), dramatizes the interconnectivity of cultural extinction, environmental destruction, and war as she parallels Ruth’s courageous defense of the living world with Thomas’ suffering and secret life in Vietnam. She also links the near genocide of aboriginal peoples with the near extinction of marine life. Deeply ecological, original, and spellbinding, Hogan ascends to an even higher plane in this hauntingly beautiful novel of the hidden dimensions of life, and all that is now imperiled. --Donna Seaman
Top customer reviews
I bought this book for Kindle. Now I want a paper and ink copy. I want - though I can't see how I'll get it - Hogan's signature on it. In the 1970s, I met Linda Hogan at a function in New York sponsored by the Women's Salon. We were both young writers, young women, if I recall, young mothers, struggling to find our voices. I had no way of knowing then what depths either of us could or would reach. We were caught in the drama of the young learning to live. I'll say now that Linda Hogan has gone as far down into our depths as any writer I have ever read. And as far up into the realms of hope.
Other books are meant to be savored. People of the Whale by Linda Hogan falls into this latter category, and savor it I did, like a fine wine.
When Thomas Witka Just marries his childhood sweetheart, Ruth, they are sure their love will last until the last gray whale sings its final song. They are members of the (fictional) A'atsika tribe, a West Coast tribe that holds the whale sacred, who believe they are descended from the whale.
But the old ways are dying. When Thomas succumbs to peer pressure to enlist, he goes off to fight in Vietnam without really understanding what, exactly, he is getting into. The horrors of war and wonton killing of women and children get to be too much for him; he kills soldiers from his own platoon and slips off into the Vietnamese jungle, leaving his dog tags behind so he will be presumed dead. He blends in with the native people and makes a living growing rice. Eventually, he fathers a daughter, Lin, there.
Back home, Ruth has given birth to Thomas's son, Marco Polo Just. Marco becomes the hope of his people as he grows. He seems to have an intuitive relationship with the octopus and the whale, and as he grows, he is taken to the island of elders to be trained in the Old Ways.
When men from the tribe decide they should kill a whale, Ruth is horrified. Where are the old ways? Where are the purification rituals, the songs, the prayers, that were to be performed before the hunt? Where is the respect for their ancestor, the whale?
Thomas returns just in time for the hunt. Barely acknowledging his son, Marco, they both board the whaling boat, and soon a young whale is spotted. Then tragedy strikes, and what becomes of both Ruth, Thomas, at the A'atsika is destined to be changed forever.
With Hogan's poetic prose and acute understanding of native peoples and the sea, one cannot help but see her parallels between the near extinction of the whale, indigenous peoples, and the slaughter of innocents in Vietnam. In Thomas's search for redemption after the bungled whale hunt, and Ruth's search for the salvation of herself and her people, it is difficult not feel compassion for people whose way of life has been all but wiped out by greed and pressure to give up traditional ways.
People of the Whale is an apropos tale for our time. It encourages the reader to view the world with a more spiritual set of eyes, to respect the balance of nature and our role in it. As I write this review, I recall an interview I read this morning with a Florida Tea Party member, voicing her disapproval of protecting Florida's endangered manatees. :We cannot elevate nature above people," she said. "That's against the Bible and the Bill or Rights."
Nowhere in the Bill of Rights do I find a word giving humankind the right to destroy nature. And if I recall my biblical studies correctly, God first made the Garden of Eden. Humankind was an afterthought to nature.
We are not above nature. We are part of nature. We all are people of the whale, the bear, the tiger, the snake. People of the Whale is a beautiful, gentle reminder of this.
If only we could get the Tea Party to read it!