Thursday, January 28, 2010

Blessing's Bead

Blessing's Bead by Debby Dahl Edwardson ARC (quotes subject to change)

Rating: 3.5/5

IQ "I want to laugh at Sylvia just like how she always laughs at me, but when I look back at her, something weird happens: I see this look on her face that makes me feel, for just a second, like I'm looking at myself. It's a look that says she knows she's running all alone, running against a whole bunch of things she couldn't name, even if she wanted to. Her mouth is clamped shut like she's shutting out everything in the whole world with just her jaw. A person can do that, too-I know." Blessing (pg. 155-56)

Blessing's Bead combines two stories, one of Blessing and her great-grandmother, Nutaaq when they are both close in age (13) at different time periods. Nutaaq in 1917 and Blessing (who's Inupiaq name is Nutaaq) in 1989. Nutaaq is going through a series of struggles during this time, when white people (both Russians and Americans) were entering Alaska and bringing good and bad things with them. Blessing is sent from Anchorage to live with her grandmother in Barrow, after an incident in her family.

When I started off reading this novel, I didn't know that Blessing's story took place in the '80s. I liked that because it discussed something I knew nothing about, the "Ice Curtain." The "Ice Curtain" is a border that separated Alaska from Russia that was closed off shortly after Nutaaq's time. This was devastating because many Eskimos had intermarried with Russians and Siberians and now they were no longer allowed to see their families. Blessing's story picks up when people are protesting the "Ice Curtain" and want the border opened up, Blessing's grandmother doesn't even know what happened to her aunt (Aaluk, Nutaqq's sister who married a Siberian). I enjoyed reading about a period of time in history that concerned Eskimos that I knew little about.

I do think that the author rushed the story a bit and that we didn't learn as much about Nutaaq as I would have liked. My main problem was not with the author or how the book was written, but that I was constantly getting confused by people's names and their genealogy. The author uses the Inupiaq words for grandmother, great-aunt and other names in families but they look very similar to the names of characters (for example aaka is Inupiaq for grandmother and Nutaaq's sister's name is Aaluk. I would constantly mix them up). But I like that in the book, when words in another langauge are used often to help you really get a feel for the language and when and how words and expressions would be used. It adds an air of authenticity to the story and eventually I could figure out most words. Keeping the family history straight was especially difficult because in the Inupiaq (for the record, the n in Inupiaq has a tilde ~ over it which is pronounced the same way as the Spanish n with tilde, I just can't type it on my computer) culture, you name your child after a deceased relative because they tell stories and that is how family history is remembered (which is a lovely idea). However I constantly had to flip to the front of the book to look at the family tree to see who "aaka's grandmother" was (so Blessing's great-great grandmother which would be Nutaaq) or "aaka's great aunt" (Blessing's great-great-aunt, Nutaaq's sister, Aaluk). Also, I had little idea of where Nutaaq's story took place. I knew it was either in Alaska, Siberia or Russia, but which one was it? But again, that's probably because I don't know my geography so the islands the author mentioned meant very little to me (I'm presuming it took place in Alaska since that's where Blessing's story occurred). I wasn't too happy with the ending either as I felt it was forced. The ending was nice and I was happy for them but it left some questions unanswered and I found a little too 'all's well that end's well.'

The author does a wonderful job of describing Alaska and what daily life was like for Inupiaq (which is a tribe of Eskimos) people both in the early 1900s and the late 1980s. I could envision the depressingly dark days of winter and see the wolves circling the small reindeer camp (which was quite interesting to read about, Nutaaq's cousins took care of the reindeer, much like the herding of sheep or cattle). I think the most interesting part of the story was the 1980s which was Blessing's story. In the town where Blessing lives (Barrow) the children speak "Village English" and they must learn to speak "School English." An example of "Village English" is "I could use an ulu real good now.The School English way of saying it would be "I can use an ulu really good now." This was a very new concept to me (the idea that Eskimos spoke a different kind of English) but it's quite similar (I think) to how African Americans have Ebonics and Spanish speakers have Spanglish as well as how people in various regions of the U.S. (really, the world) have different accents and ways of saying things in English.I also really liked how the author would describe people and other events through Blessing's eyes as she had a unique way of seeing and describing tings (as seen in the IQ at the start of this review). I loved the stories the Inupiaq told, especially the story of the lemming, it's very cute and it imparts a good moral. The art of storytelling is summed up very well by Aaka, "But when I tell Aaka about how stories change, she says no, stories don't change. They grow in people's hearts, just like people grow. Stories say different things at different times, but they don't change." (pg. 108). The characters were generally very well-rounded and fleshed out and someone can relate to the story of every character (abandonment, feeling like an outsider, alcoholism, etc.), but their stories are not told in a preachy way, they are told as facts of life that people must deal with and triumph over.

Blessing's Bead was a good story that illustrates very clearly the life of Inupiaq life both in the early 1900s and in the late 1980s. It tells a story of hope, family and memories and the idea of having a bead connect a family is very powerful. One little blue bead is all it takes to help family members remember their loved ones. Blessing's voice is genuine as is Nutaaq's, although I thought Blessing was more immature than Nutaaq and she was slightly more frustrating of a character. I loved the descriptions of Alaska as well as the customs of Inupiaq life (although it sounds too depressing with all those dark days for me). The story of Blessing feeling left out amongst her own people (she didn't speak the language or know the customs of the Inupiaq's since Blessing grew up away from all that in Anchorage) is one that all people can relate to, regardless of race. 6th grade and up.

Read the cover story and the interview with the author, I found both very interesting!

Disclosure: Received from Lyn, my book fairy godmother :)


  1. This sounds interesting! I have never heard of the "Ice Curtain" either.

  2. Fascinating review! I don't know much about Alaska, but I guess the proximity to Russia means the culture and history are very different. I love the idea of the family connection through storytelling and the bead.

  3. wowzers! Your reviews are so in-depth! Jeez :-D You make me look bad :)
    but really, this does sound good. Def. not a light read though.

  4. I love the way the author evokes the setting. I read the book a couple of months ago, and I still have in my mind the image of the slushy ocean in October.

    You're right about Blessing's voice being a lot less mature than Nutaaq's. But at the beginning of her part of the story, Blessing is only 11. In addition, the loss of role for young women that accompanied the loss of culture after the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic and the migration to the cities tended to infantilize young women. It's the same story everywhere--100 years ago, children grew up a lot sooner because they had to support their families.

  5. Thanks for the review - I'd never heard of this! I know nothing at all about Inupiaq life, so I definitely need to pick this one up!


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