________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007


The Whale People. (Junior Canadian Classic).

Roderick Haig-Brown.
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1962/2003.
206 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 1-55017-277-8.

Subject Heading:
Indians of North America-Pacific Coast (B.C.)-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Todd Kyle.

*** /4


In his dream, a spirit came and told him to pick up the stone harpoon; he could not see its face or form, but he knew it was the whale spirit. Atlin went to the stone harpoon, reached down for it and tried to pick it up. His hands could not grip it and all his strength could not move it. The spirit was not angry, as Atlin expected it to be, but laughed the laugh of Nit-gass and said in his easy voice: "There is plenty of time. You will learn to lift it and then you will kill whales. When the harpoon is heavy it strikes to the heart of the whale."

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.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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