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Book Review: Song of the River

by Sue Harrison

    Harrison established herself as a master storyteller with "Mother Earth Father Sky", and this fascinating novel continues in that tradition. "Song of the River", volume one of the Storyteller Trilogy, brings to life the culture of the people who lived on the west side of what is now Cook Inlet, Alaska, 8,500 years ago.

    This novel is much more than just another prehistoric adventure/love story. Harrison, in her Notes, says that:

When we step away from ourselves and see through the eyes of another, we are blessed not only with a vision different than our own but also with a more accurate portrait of ourselves, of our political and social environs, and the preconceptions that color our thinking.
    In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cousin and Near River People, the Whale Hunters and Walrus Men, we can see our own world in its simplest terms - humans trying to make their way through life. Sometimes that journey is taken gently and with compassion, sometimes with bitterness, arrogance or violence. Is the story anthropologically accurate? I have no reason to think that it's not, even though there is no scientific proof to either support or dispell that belief.

    The plot of "Song of the River" is fairly complex, winding through time and space in the shadow of a host of well-developed characters ranging from hero to idiot. We meet K'os as a girl who murders Gull Wing, one of three men from a neighbouring village who raped her at a sacred spot. The next day at the same spot, she finds an abandoned baby with a club foot, and adopts him, believing that his club foot shows that he is part otter, and that he is a gift from the animal spirits to help her wreak revenge. We live with that baby, Chakliux, as he grows to become the village's greatest storyteller, but also a man always struggling with his true identity.

    A double murder forces Chakliux on a long journey, a journey during which the reader is allowed to see the details of life that usually get overlooked, the development of cultures through experimentation and adaptation, and the cultural insensitivities that result in wars.

    There's an extremely fine line between adding enough anthropological information to add to the readers' ability to put themselves in prehistoric Alaska, and killing the story with an over-abundance of it. Harrison handles it beautifully - even the detailed description of how meat is heated by adding hot rocks to a bag containing the meat fits well into the larger story. Major triumphs such as adoption of bows and arrows become one of the mysteries being slowly revealed. A glossary of Native American words and explanations of the medicinal qualities of some Alaska plants is included, and should be read first to save stumbling over unknown terms.

    I found only one flat spot in the book - very strangely, it was the major battle scene. Harrison's treatment of individual actions is very sensitive, and she seemed to get lost in the larger action. But that was only a couple of pages.

    Song of the River is an adventure story with a full range of human emotions and actions woven in - love and devotion, hate and treachery. Maybe we really haven't changed much in the past 85 centuries.

Title: "Song of the River"
Author: Sue Harrison
Publisher: Avon, 1998
Paperback, 589 pages
Price: $6.99
ISBN Number: 0380726033

Available at Amazon and other retailers.