CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007
Atlin is a 14-year-old Pacific Coast Aboriginal living in pre-Columbian times when his Hotsath tribe are thriving by hunting herring, salmon, seals, and whales. His father, the whaling chief Nit-gass, is killed by a whale at a time when the young chief is not yet ready to take over as the tribe's main provider. After a rather lean year when only Nit-gass's brother is able to kill any whales, Atlin slowly learns both the craft and the magic of whaling with the help of his slave companion, Hinak, and his father's right-hand man, Tokwit. The signs of his future greatness - being able to handle a ceremonial stone harpoon, fasting for days, bathing every day in frigid water, and his mysterious episode swimming unharmed with a live shark - culminate in a moderately successful whaling season. Finally, Atlin plays both his whaling skill and his political acumen to convince the hostile chief of a neighbouring tribe to allow him to marry his daughter.
In this reprint of Haig-Brown's 1964 novel (an early winner of the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children award), one can easily see the progression Canadian children's literature has made from works like these, where young people are in almost perfect tune with their elders and their surroundings, to more contemporary works where tensions seem to increase with every year that a character passes the age of 12. Today's teens may have difficulty relating to this book, and may also have difficulty getting past the dense description of whaling techniques and hunting scenes.
Of course, this lack of tension is partly owed to the society being presented - one in which respect for elders means survival. But the author presents this world in a way that is still moving, multi-dimensional, and not at all preachy. The dialogue is earnest but not stilted, full of light jokes and deep spiritual references. Atlin's acceptance of the spiritual explanation for everything is sublime, tempered profoundly by his family's knowledge that spiritual help means nothing without hunting skill. The few cases where Atlin does not do exactly what is expected of him - putting Hinak, a slave, on his hunting team, giving the neighbouring chief a whale as a gift, and, of course, his relatively early ascension to whaling chief - give the story more than enough conflict, however subtle. In the end, though, it is the entirely credible transformation of a boy into a brave man - through suffering, hard work, and transcendent belief - that makes this story worth reading, even four decades on.
Todd Kyle is a former President of the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians who is currently a library branch manager in Mississauga, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.