People of the Whale is an extraordinary novel filled with the wisdom of ancestors and the hubris of man, the loss and redemption of the self. Set on the northern West Coast of the Pacific Ocean, the sacred songs and rituals of old people are slowly disappearing. There are tales of the whales, of a magical octopus, of people connected to the sea and its mysteries.
Thomas W. Just, born in 1947, grandson of Witka, carries the gifts of the spirits. But on one foolish night of drinking with his friends, he signs up for the army, literally sundering his past from his future. Leaving behind his wife Ruth, his wife, who is carrying his child, Thomas has no way of knowing how his decision will change his life with the woman he has known and loved since childhood. Wise in the understanding of her people and her young husband, Ruth waits while Thomas is swallowed by a war in Vietnam that is filled with chaos and death.
He loses his spirit there. Surviving, he becomes another, adapting with his Indian sensibilities to the terror and helplessness of the villagers, the innocents brutalized in a cauldron of violence. A world away, Ruth gives birth to their son, Marco Polo, a boy who is nurtured on stories of his father and grandfather, the whale hunter who honors the creatures who die that the people might live.
Recreated for a time in Vietnam, Thomas finds comfort with Ma and their daughter, Lin. But even his new life is torn away when the Americans return Thomas to the states. Now a man with two lives, his soul in darkness, Thomas is mired in confusion, defeated by what he has seen and done, no longer able to hear the voices of his ancestors.
Now Hoganís brilliant novel turns to the lives of the survivors: Ruth, Marco Polo, and in Vietnam Lin, a motherless girl with a handful of memories of a loving father. Ruth has learned to live without Thomas, speaking truth to her people, as Marco becomes a man like his grandfather. When a tragedy takes Marco away from Ruth, she endures, seeking counsel from the ocean and the voices that fill her heart. Years pass, and far away, Lin grows into a young woman who has long waited for her father to return.
It is these women who give depth to Thomasí story, their undiminished love that sustains even though he remains a wanderer for a long time. The subtle blending of myth and culture, loss and hope fills this book with buoyancy, a strength that transcends the ordinary, a people embraced by the wisdom of their ancestors even when their voices are swallowed by the wind.
Marrying two cultures and an appreciation of the old ways, Hogan creates a moving paean to the human spirit caught in the most dire circumstances, love and forgiveness undiminished by time, one generation connected to another by song, story and memory.