Flight of the Goose, a first novel by Lesley Thomas, is a love story set in Itiak, a fictitious village in Northwest Alaska. Thomas applies her intimate knowledge of the ways of the Inupiat (Eskimo) people living in this area and her interests in Shamanism, spiritualism and anthropology as well as inputs from her own research on the effects of oil spills on the Alaskan eco system in the writing of her novel. The result is a reading experience that is rich in content and emotional satisfaction.
The story revolves around two protagonists. Kayuqtuq Ugungoraseok, "the red fox," is a young orphaned girl seeking an identity through the outlawed form of shamanism. Her Anglicized name is Gretchen. Leif Trygvesen is a biologist researching the effects of oil spills on cold marshes while evading the draft and struggling with his own losses. He studies the migration of different bird species and is especially on the lookout for Tallin's goose, a species whose visits to the area are becoming rare. The novel is based on events that happened in Gtetchen's young days. Her story is related by Gretchen and Leif, through his journal entries that provide a fascinating comparison of viewpoints based on their cultural dispositions and perspectives.
From the outset, Gretchen is attracted to Leif, the birdman. In his journal, Leif records her first visit to his camp and wonders what her purpose is. During the weeks that follow, their interest in each other grows. The birdman notices that she is different from the rest, not only in appearance but in the way she slaves for the Inupiat family of Flo and Abe, with whom she lives, and the way she tends to wander alone by herself. Gretchen's bonding with the birdman deepens as she strives to become an angutkoq, or shaman, and experiences spiritual encounters linked to him that she struggles to interpret. These same forces makes her break off her budding relationship with him suddenly when she feels it portends danger. At her behest, he leaves Itiak a confused man. After he leaves, Gretchen struggles in her quest to understand the spirits that guide her. Through these forces, she understands that Lief poses no danger to her but that he himself may need to be saved. Their subsequent union, though joyful, is marred by events that unfold in unexpected ways.
In contrast to the birdman, who is intent on saving birds, there is Willy, the grandson of Abe and Flo, who hunts goose and other wildlife for a living. He is kind, intelligent and, though having no blood ties, is the closest to a brother and confidante that Gretchen has. Yet despite his outward confidence as an Inupiat hunter and a person looked up to by all, Willy struggles inwardly with his own demons. The actions of Willy, Leif and Gretchen intertwine in ways that deeply affect them and their loved ones.
Flight of the Goose weaves a rich tapestry of the ways of the life of the Inupiat. Their lives as hunter-gatherers is amply demonstrated in this novel where Abe, Willy and the other men hunt seals, walrus and birds, and the women play a supportive role as they help in the cooking and preserving of the meat brought by the men and prepare hides to make clothes and boots for themselves and for trading. Gretchen's vivid descriptions of her chores leads to an appreciation of how these people adapt their hunting, working, living and celebrating to the harsh Alaskan weather conditions. Gretchen lives in an age when the wisdom of the elders and Shamans who foretold the ways of the weather and animals is diminishing with the influence of people from Outside, especially the missionaries. It is to the Church that most people turn to now for spiritual guidance. The children are forced to attend schools to learn about their culture as taught them by the eskulukti, the Western educators. Told from Gretchen's viewpoint, the novel emphasizes the important role played by women in this culture.
Leif''s observations as a biologist on the changes taking place on the Western Alaskan ecosystem, as well as his concern of the changes brought on by the Outside to spoil the simple and beautiful lives of the Inupiat people, add another dimension to this novel. His views as a conscientious objector to taking part in the Vietnam War brings into question the destruction that we as human beings inflict on our planet through wars and by adopting consumerist lifestyles.
Flight of the Goose is rich in spiritualism. The novel is told in the form of seven "books", the titles of which have been borrowed by the author from nineteenth-century shamans. Both Lief and Gretchen are on separate spiritual quests as they strive to come to terms with and explain the events in their lives. Their discussions on the various phenomenon they encounter lead to a melding of these ideas to a certain extent even as they try to understand and appreciate their differences. The questions thy ask are ones that a reader from any culture can identify with.
Lesley Thomas applies her extensive knowledge in many areas to bring forth a novel that educates on many fronts - in the culture and way of life of the Inupiat people, the ecological destruction wrought by hunting and mining in the Alaskan system, Shamanism and spiritual enlightenment and how two people from different cultures find love. Enriched with quotes from Shamans and poets, Flight of the Goose is a story that will provide fresh perspectives with repeated readings.