Posted by: beansai | December 11, 2010

People of the Whale by Linda Hogan

     I realize I didn’t meet my initial goal of posting a review in November. Honestly, I tried. Multiple time in fact. I just couldn’t seem to get that particular review to write/read cohesively or intelligently. So I left it alone and plan on going back to it later. In the meantime I read another book by Linda Hogan so here’s the review for that:

     Linda Hogan has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read her novel Solar Storms, and my love for her writing has been reinforced after finishing People of the Whale. The novel takes place primarily in a small Native American reservation in the Northwest U.S., and mainly follows the lives of Thomas Witka Just and his wife Ruth. When I first started the book I was aware of the differences between Solar Storms and the writing style of People of the Whale. While Hogan’s writing is undeniably beautiful and poetic in both novels, there is something sharper, and a bit staccato to rhythm of the language and sentence structures in People. Once I fell into this book’s patterns and stopped trying to force it into what I knew of Hogan’s other prose writing, I was better able to hear and experience the poignant imagery and poetry of the language. I also decided that the writing style was something akin to Louis Erdrich’s Love Medicine, with an inherent starkness or nakedness to the language – where sentences were shorter and more direct.

     Another thing I noticed about the writing was a tendency to shift view points and tenses without warning. At first this was rather disorienting and a bit annoying, but as I moved along with the characters and began to understand the heart of the novel better, this constant shifting made sense. A lot of the book deals with time: how Western society tends to view time in a linear fashion, how the characters are grasping for their pasts – their history, how war fractures a person’s place in time. As I understood that this shifting of tenses represented the tangle that is our concepts of time, I was less and less bothered by the changes, beginning to accept them as natural movements of life, break-downs of the boundaries we try to place time within.

     Linda Hogan does an amazing job representing the struggle of a culture that has been run over and practically eradicated by colonization. She is able to break down boundaries for the reader, allowing even a reader of an outside culture an intimate look at the lost riches of a Native culture, and allow them to experience sympathy and compassion without feeling targeted by a finger-pointing guilt. I personally find this accessibility very important, because if a reader from an outside culture feels the need to put up their defenses, how can they ever possibly learn or understand what was lost? How can they find common ground with a culture that lives within their own if they are too busy trying to defend their own part in history? One of the ways Hogan manages to break down these barriers is by removing the story from American soil (where there will naturally be more tension involved for American readers) and over to Vietnam. In the midst of war and fluctuating power struggles, Hogan is able to demonstrate other instances where smaller, more intimate cultures are ravaged by the larger ones, and nearly – if not completely – demolished. By bringing her main readership to a foreign country, Hogan enables the reader to gain another perspective on the loss of culture, one that is less likely to carry as much blame as the one on home soil. Not that she diminishes the weight of the loss of any culture as she takes the reader across boundary lines.

     Something I have always admired about some of Hogan’s writings is that despite the story lines being built around Native loss and struggle, there is certainly deeper truths that will resonate with a wide variety of people – whether separated from their native culture, or merely floating in one that is too large to truly be part of. That is one of the amazing things about Hogan’s writing – she manages to make you question the foundations of your own life (that sounds like hyperbole, I know, but I mean it!). This book in particular made me wonder about the effects of being a part of a larger, all-consuming type of culture versus being a member of a smaller, more intimate one, and whether it is possible to truly feel a part of something so large. My theory stemming from these thoughts is that a broad, umbrella type of culture is essentially no culture at all, especially in lieu of increasing globalization, where we all seem to be blending into one another more and more so. With this in mind, I find a book like People of the Whale that much more moving, because it desperately clings to the last remnants of an intimate culture that knew itself enough to even know something of the lives of creatures in the ocean or in the forests. The idea that a people is aware enough of themselves, connected enough, to even open themselves up beyond humans to the world surrounding them. There are too many disconnections, too much surface area being covered by larger cultures to achieve such permeation. In this way I found that I truly empathized with the characters‘ struggle to regain their lost past – something they know is still there, though hidden from them, because I too am searching for that past that would pull my toes into earth, forming roots, making me a part of something with a completeness never experienced in my life.

     One of the ways in which Hogan brings these people to life is through their relationship to water, an element we all have in common, and yet have differing levels of deference for it. Not only is the presence of the ocean saturating the work, but so are the creatures of the ocean. The reverence the characters’ ancestors held for the ocean life seem to reflect the degree to which human life is also held in reverence. As the traditions fall away and respect for nature diminishes, the same happens with respect for human life. This shift can be primarily marked by the Vietnam war and Thomas’s experiences there. The beauty of water as a symbol is that it is pretty much everywhere, present as the seemingly endless ocean, rivers, rain, to the moisture in the humid air of the jungle. In this book water is life, quite literally for the people of Dark River – the small town that is Thomas and Ruth Just’s home, where their people’s beginnings originated from the whales, hence the title of the book.

     There is so much more I could say about this book, and probably should, but I’ll leave it at this: read People of the Whale and any other book by Linda Hogan. She is very much worth reading. This book gets:
★★★★

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Responses

  1. Hi! How are you? Are you doing another blog or are you on hiatus? I can’t find your poetry! Write me!


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