Cold River Spirits centers on Jan Harper-Haines' native family in
Alaska. As the bearer of the family's oral history, Harper-Haines felt
compelled to write their legends and stories down. She has done a fine
job, including many black and white photographs that help illuminate the
stories and acquaint us with the characters. However, this book reads
more like oral history than literary nonfiction. Its most salient
feature, the primary reason to read it, is its attention to a culture
that is fast-changing, a culture about which most of us know
Although Alaska's wildness and the hardiness of its people have long
fascinated me, I know little about its natives. Natives still make up at
least sixteen percent of that huge state's population. The Athabascan is a
group who mostly lives in frigid and barren Northern Alaska along the
Yukon River (the natives call it "Big River"). They live primarily in
the areas around Fairbanks and Anchorage, where temperatures range from
close to 100 degrees above zero to minus 60 degrees.
In Cold River Spirits, Harper-Haines, who now lives in Northern
California, tells the story primarily of her grandmother, Louise Minook
Harper, and of her mother, Flora Jane Harper Petri, both of whom are now
gone. The Harper family is perhaps typical -- quite poor, several
children in each generation, some intermarrying with other cultures, lots of
discrimination and lost chances because of ethnic background.
Luckily, the author is able to maintain some humor -- and lots of
compassion -- about the overall situation.
The author retells revealing anecdotes of several members of three
generations of the Harper family, beginning in the late nineteenth century
and extending almost to today. She always loops back to Louise and
Flora Jane. At the very end, she brings us up to date on many of her
relatives' current lives, to show that many now are attending college
and prospering. A family tree helps enormously, as does a glossary of
some native terms.
These are tiny-town and rural-family stories, full of dating, having
children, marrying, divorcing, working, gardening hard soil, cooking,
drinking (sometimes to excess), and other everyday occurrences. However,
the most unusual and most interesting parts of the book involve the
characters' connection to the supernatural. The Athabascans, like many
native peoples, have a belief in a spirit world. Although most of the
Harpers were uneducated beyond high school, they had another kind of
"They never said aloud the name of one who had died for fear
of summoning that spirit. They tried to avoid bragging about good luck,
knowing they'd lose it if they did. They honored nature and her spirit
world. If they forgot, and bad luck started following them like a
slavering wolf, they knew why."
Louise, especially, is strongly connected to many spirits:
was a child, she heard how the Nicolina [bushman or woodsman, man or
woman] liked to tease and could scare the living daylights out of people
with their eerie laughter and shrieking. How they stole food and tools
and even children to raise as their own. When she was nine, she had even
This is not the last spirit she sees. Much later in life, when she is visiting her cousin Axinia, who runs a
bar, Louise hears people fighting below her bedroom. She is confused, as
Axinia has told her the patrons are a peaceful lot. "Nasdaetl'ne.
spirits. ghosts fighting," Axinia tells her."It happens only now and
Flora Jane Harper was the first native graduate of the University of
Alaska, in 1935. This book took her daughter, also a University of
Alaska graduate, almost ten years to complete. " This book was my
mother's dream," she writes. Cold River Spirits will hold the reader's
attention and curiosity, not for its style, but rather for its
fascinating glimpse into a quite unknown and rich world.