Cold River Spirits
Jan Harper Haines
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Buy *Cold River Spirits: The Legacy of an Athabascan-Irish Family from Alaska's Yukon River* online

Cold River Spirits: The Legacy of an Athabascan-Irish Family from Alaska's Yukon River
Jan Harper Haines
Graphic Arts Center Publishing
192 pages
October 2000
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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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 nothing.

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 knowledge:

"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:
"When Louise 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 seen one.
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 again."

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.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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