Drawing the reader into her stunning images, author Cindy Dyson brings to life the isolated world of the Aleutian Islands. Centering on five generations of Aleut women,
she paints an unforgettable portrait down through the ages: their fierce rigor, their unstoppable search for self-determination, and their struggle to survive in a world dominated by the fragility of men and the harsh forces of nature surrounding them.
The Aleut story is one of domination and exploitation. Skilled in hunting sea mammals, they were subjugated throughout the coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska by Russian fur traders, who virtually enslaved all the Aleut men. The Russians wanted the rich furs, and since the Aleuts knew how to get them, they made them hunt for them. The women were left to survive on their own, to shoulder the burden, to take their "fate from God's hand."
These struggles could not be further from Brandy's thoughts in 1986; this free-spirited drifter arrives in the town of Dutch Harbor, chasing after Thad, her fisherman boyfriend. Loose and directionless, Brandy is a self-confessed hedonist, naturally drawn to the allure of sex and drugs, with their promise of the parties, "the men, the sweet ignorance, and the dizzy oblivion."
A city girl by nature, the young woman is shocked at Dutch Harbor's creepy isolation.
It is as if the settlement exists outside of time, as though she has landed on "terra incognita - nothing – not the utilitarian buildings, the signs, the vehicles – spoke of any certain year." When Thad departs to work on a fishing trawler, Brandy ensconces herself in a cabana high atop the surrounding hills, left alone to ponder her past.
She eventually finds a job working as a cocktail waitress at the notorious Elbow Room, a brutish and violent drunken bar frequented by mostly white fisherman.
The Aleuts work the bar, providing the native backdrop. While running the gauntlet of groping fishermen and learning how to ignore
extemporaneous fighting, Brandy encounters clues to a strange ritual performed since ancient times. She notices strange graffiti on a toilet stall and has a violent encounter with the drunken native Aleut woman whose past is full of undisclosed memories.
Soon Brandy is snorting coke with her new friend Bellie and learning about the aged Ida and Annie
and the sacrifices these elderly women once made. These women initially disturb Brandy, settling into her life without provocation or invitation - Ida gives her the eye, Anna continually tests her with reading material, and the ghost of the younger Liz walks around her cabana late at night. Brandy is soon consumed by notions of rocks that once directed murder and dead bodies that offer a strange kind of power to the living.
In this trenchant tale of womanhood, independence, and self-discovery, Dyson interlaces Brandy's journey with those of previous generations of Aleut women, who lived in a netherworld of bitterness and sadness, their homes, husbands, and families ravaged by war, disease, and alcohol, the young men turned to sodden drunks, the decay deepening, eating away at what was left of their communities. Brandy and these women are alone, separated only by time, their men gone – dead, fighting, fishing and fleeing. The women
are left to exist as victims of all the "propane appliances," the solitude, "the Russian brutes" and "a world undone" by the ravages of man.
The novel is packed with strong female characters. Their inner strength and formidable certainty of their place in the world
allows them to carry on the burdens of life and to have the power to take it,
while the men leave or are ravaged by drink, often ineffectual, helpless and angry. Their voices come to haunt Brandy, seducing her, offering her answers and knowledge, allowing her to change and perhaps replace the woman she has been.
This land that is "the Cradle of Storms and the Birthplace of the Wind" encapsulates this young woman, and as she circles the "winds of history" and learns about this place at the edge of the world, her mind returns again and again to these women who have gone before her, and who have shaped her heart, the resilient, the passionate, the lost, and the mourned.