Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Archipelago: 354 pp., $17 paper
"My genealogy, like the tundra root we call the golden root, is enmeshed with its native soil. It does not spread very far below ground, as the permafrost is too near. And yet no hurricane could tear it from its native soil, no frost could wither it…." These stories, written by the son of the last shaman of the Chukchi people, whose villages once lined the shores of the Bering Sea, are so clear, surefooted, vivid and confident that it's hard to believe the people who passed them on so faithfully could ever be threatened by mere commerce. And yet their demise began with the commercial whaling that killed off their source of food and spiritual sustenance and continued with the race for gold that took prospectors up into the fragile Arctic tundra. The stories are an everlasting reminder of their relationship with the tundra, crags, lagoons, hummocks and with the animals. The Chukchi people believe the Earth was created from raven droppings; a little snow bunting poked a hole in the sky to let the sun in. The first woman bore whale-children and from them came the Chukchi people. These stories describe the marking of the seasons — the breaking ice, changing light, frost and drift. They describe the training of shamans; the passing on of rituals and healing skills. They are breathtaking, wild and imaginative.
The Watery Part of the World
Algonquin Books: 272 pp., $23.95
Theodosia, daughter of Aaron Burr, left home on a trip to New York from South Carolina and, in early 1813, was never seen again. Michael Parker takes this fact, and the lives, in 1970, of an elderly African American man, Woodrow, and two elderly white women, the last residents of an island off North Carolina's Outer Banks, and weaves a remarkable story. In his telling, Burr's daughter was on a mission to save her father's reputation. Her ship was cast up on the island, she was captured by pirates, escaped and remained there, with her sister and with the freed slave (Woodrow is that slave's descendant) who cares for them. The entire novel has a blue-green, underwater feel, a timeless forgetfulness. "Woodrow didn't think in year-of-our-Lords. He thought: wind, tide, moon, blues running, hog killing, oyster harvesting, when to plant his ornery sand garden." The three are visited by anthropologists that Woodrow calls the Tape Recorders. They tell the story of their decades on the island. The logic of the original journey is long lost in the depths.
In This Light
New and Selected Stories
Melanie Rae Thon
Graywolf Press: 256 pp., $15 paper
Melanie Rae Thon, a recipient of several prestigious awards, including one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists in 1996, has written three novels and two short-story collections. This, her third collection, contains new stories as well as a few from the 1990s. All are set in the backwoods, the ominous shacks and dubious main streets of small town American life. Slaves, potato farmers, hard-headed, desperate teenagers people these tales. Violated bodies, nightmarish history — her words light the path to blame. One by one, Thon takes down authorities — the fathers, slave owners, rapists who change and destroy lives. Thon is not afraid of the minutiae of damage — the innards, the fears or the moments of redemption: "Then I was lying in the grass with that boy. Cold stars swirled in the hole of the sky. In the weird silence, bodies mended; bodies became shape and shadow; pieces were found. Flame became pink gasoline guzzled down. Gunfire turned to curse and moan."
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer