The eighteenth Kate Shugak novel. It’s Forrest Gump meets Cain and Abel. The action takes place three days after — and 90 years before — the events of A Night Too Dark.
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Here’s an excerpt.
The black death didn’t get to Alaska until November. When it did, it cut down almost everyone in its path.
The territorial governor imposed a quarantine and restricted travel into the Interior, stationing U.S. Marshals at all ports, trailheads and river mouths to interdict travel between communities. He issued a special directive urging Alaska Natives to stay at home and avoid public gatherings. Theaters closed, churches cancelled services, schools were let out, but because of the inescapably communal nature of traditional life Natives were infected and died disproportionately. In Brevig Mission, only eight of eighty people survived. In some villages there were no survivors at all. When the influenza pandemic passed late the following spring, those left alive were too weak to hunt for food, and even more died of starvation.
In Niniltna in March 1919, Chief Lev Kookesh and his wife Alexandra froze to death because they were too sick to get up and feed the fire in their wood stove. Four miles up the road at the Kanuyaq Mine, mine manager Josiah Greenwood lost his wife and both sons, and one out of four of his work force.
Some of the uninfected turned to predation and thievery. Harold Halvorsen was beaten to death in a fight over his last bag of flour. Bertha Anelon was assaulted in her own bedroom and died of her injuries two days later, alone in the bed in which she had been attacked. The offices of the Kanuyaq Mine were broken into half a dozen times, the cash box stolen, the glass case housing the Cross of Gold nugget shattered and the Cross gone, the company files rifled and set on fire. Toilets and refrigerators were ripped out of mine workers’ homes as residents lay on their beds with no strength to resist. Food, clothes, photographs, personal papers, photographs, jewelry, all vanished, most never to be recovered by their owners.
Homes where entire families had died were left empty and abandoned, village populations were halved, while cemeteries overran their boundaries.
Eventually, inevitably, people rallied. In Niniltna, the memorial potlatch for Chief Lev and his wife was seen by many as a start down the road of recovery from an eight-month long nightmare of disease and death, a time to mourn the dead, a time for the living to nourish their souls and rebuild their homes and towns. Moving forward was necessary for survival, even if they also understood that life would never be the same for any of them ever again.
Organizing the potlatch fell to Chief Lev’s only child, Elizaveta, age seventeen. Her life had nearly been forfeit, too, except that someone had come to their house, a man, a young placer miner, miraculously uninfected, who told her he had been checking house to house for anyone left alive. He found her in her bed, suspecting her parents were dead in the next room but too weak to get up and find out. Like the rest of the survivors, she was thin and pale and grieving, but she was determined to do her best by her tribe, by her parents, and by her chief. The surviving girls from down at the Northern Light helped her wash and dress the bodies in their finest clothes. The young placer miner, named Herbert Elmer “Mac” McCullough, kindled a coal fire in the cemetery and used the heat to dig their graves in the still frozen ground.
Some remaining survivors weren’t too sick to grumble, starting with the scandal of women no better than they should be laying out two tribal elders. Elizaveta had always been a wild child, they told each other, although much of that could be laid at Lev’s door. He was the one who’d taught her to hunt and fish and trap in the first place, over the objections of his mother and her sisters and the rest of the elders, members of a conservative and traditional tribe who thought a woman’s place was in the home, sewing skins and making babies. He’d even allowed Elizaveta to spend the previous summer working his gold claim in the Quilak foothills, and with Quinto Dementieff there, too. Chaperoned by her father, it was true, but still.
That summer before the black death had been profitable for everyone. Lev had even opened a bank account in Elizaveta’s name. Alexandra was horrified but Lev was adamant. “She earned it,” he told Alexandra, and handed the passbook to his daughter.
Elizaveta was thrilled. She felt somehow a little taller with the passbook in her possession, and when she went to Kanuyaq to clean house for Angie Greenwood, she looked at the flush toilet she scrubbed out every week in a different way. No luxury was unattainable with your own money jingling in your pocket.
All that was changed now, of course. She had used all of her savings to buy gifts for the traditional gift giving at her parents’ potlatch, tools, blankets, kitchenware, jewelry, canned food ordered in bulk from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Then there was the cost of shipping it all to Cordova, and by special dispensation of Mr. Greenwood brought in on the mine’s railroad free of charge. Mr. Greenwood, a kind man, had always been punctilious about maintaining good relations with the people in Kanuyaq, white and Native, amateur and professional, and his own grief did not deter him now. When the day came, her parent’s spirits had no cause for shame at what was given to family and friends in their name. No shame either, in the hall of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which she had decorated with pine boughs tied up with green and red ribbons. It gave the long, rectangular room a celebratory, albeit somewhat Christmassy air. Mac had helped her put them up the night before, which was when it had happened, a delightful interlude of much mutual pleasure. It had been so long since Elizaveta had felt happiness of any kind.
The jewel in the crown of the hall’s decorations came when she placed the icon at the head of the room, on a tall table with a round top, next to the sepia photograph of her parents, blown up to a grainy simulacrum by a photographer in Seattle for a fee that had used up the last of her savings. Her father was seated and serious in his regalia, her mother standing behind him in her beaded deerskin, one hand resting on Lev’s shoulder, an equally serious expression on her face. They looked stiff and very stern, not at all the way Elizaveta remembered them.
The icon was a Russian Orthodox triptych, known to the Park as the Sainted Mary. There were three panels, depicting from left to right Mary holding the infant Jesus in a barn, Mary holding the dead Jesus at the foot of the cross, and a resurrected Jesus revealing himself to Mary before a rolled stone. The Sainted Mary was eight inches high, and all three panels together eighteen inches wide. It was made of wood that had been gilded by the original artist’s hand, the gilt tarnished and flaking. The illustrations were made of pierced and enameled metal with bas relief figures. The frame was studded with dull colored stones, two missing from their bezels.
It was old, very old, no one could say how old. They knew it had come with the gussuks in their tall ships from across the sea, but no one knew how it had come into the hands of the tribe, although those who counted Tlingits among their ancestors could make a pretty good guess.
It was understood that it was not a personal possession, that the chief only held it in trust for the tribe. The icon had miraculous powers, among them the ability to heal. Most recently Albert Shugak had prayed to the Sainted Mary and had recovered the use of his legs, it was believed until then lost forever in the battle of Verdun. He had married Angelique Halvorsen six months later, and she was now pregnant with their first child, their family one of the few only lightly touched by the black death. The Sainted Mary also held the power to grant wishes. Almira Mike prayed for a son and within the year the Sainted Mary had answered with the birth of William, a happy, moon-faced child.
Since Chief Lev had had no sons, in whose custody the icon would next be placed was a matter of vital importance to the tribe.
For this and many other reasons, not least that after enduring the horrors of the past year the tribe was in sore need of something to show them that they were in fact still a tribe, with pride and traditions and a history going back ten thousand years, it was imperative that they elect a new chief as soon as possible.
It was in this spirit that they gathered, family from Ketchikan, friends from Sitka, tribal members from Juneau, close kin from Fairbanks and kissing cousins from Circle and shirttail relatives from Ahtna and from all the villages on the river from Tikani to Chulyin, an astonishing assembly given the decimation of their ranks. Mac McCullough helped Elizaveta distribute the gifts, although many of guests would not meet his eyes and deeply resented the intrusion of this round-eyed gussuk into this most important, almost sacred of tribal rites. Instead, they looked at Elizaveta, with reproach. Elizaveta, who despite her parent’s death had something of a glow about her.
Well. They all knew what that meant. They accepted their gifts in a spirit of one part entitlement to three parts righteous indignation, gorged themselves on the thin stew made from last year’s moose and hunks of bread, and returned to their tents having taken only the most formal leave of their hostess.
The next morning the Sainted Mary was gone.
So was Mac McCullough.