As a child who loved history, I sometimes found Alaska to be a very frustrating place to grow up because everything was so new. The oldest house in our town, for instance, was only forty years old.
Of course, the Indians and Eskimos had been in Alaska for thousands of years, but there was no written record, and anthropologists had to speculate about what their lives had been like before the Europeans came. And those early people left little behind them of that old life but artifacts, whereas I wanted to tour stone castles. Walk on the Great Wall of China, and stand in the circle at Stonehenge.
But the good thing about growing up in Alaska was that it was possible to talk to people who had been there almost at the time of the first contact with Europeans. Along the Yukon River, where I spent much of my life, the first Russians came in 1845, and many of the old people remembered what their parents had to say about that first contact.
When my stepfather’s mother told me the stories of her mother, who remembered the first white man she’d ever seen, I was fascinated. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to first see mirrors, cloth and writing, and to taste sugar and bread.
So her stories were the beginning of my fascination with early Alaska history and the process of acculturation–what happens when one culture comes smack up against another culture. This has been happening from the beginning of time: the Cro-Magnon meet the Neanderthal, the Syrians meet the Egyptians. And it has happened in Australia and Africa and the South Pacific, and everywhere else.
Because I’d thought and read and heard so much about these first years of contact in Alaska, Minuk’s story almost wrote itself. Although Minuk is a fictional character, the things that happened in the story–sometimes very sad things–were true, taken straight from the journals and documents of the time.
Because of these extraordinary first person sources it was possible to write so authentically about these people at this time that I think Minuk might be my favorite of the books I’ve written.
It was so important to me to get all the cultural facts right that I asked my editor, the wonderful Tamara England, to send the book to Wendell Oswalt to review and find any errors before it was published. Oswalt is the Yup’ik anthropologist whose work I practically memorized during the writing of Minuk. He sent back this comment, and I haven’t stopped beaming about it yet. My favorite all time review.
“I like the ms very much. Hill has a good to superior command of the historical and anthropological data. It is satisfying to read a fictional account that rings true for a subject familiar to me. I think you have done a fine job. You make the people live real lives.” Wendell Oswalt, March 5, 2002.
And though American Girl cancelled the whole series of Girls of Many Lands, the book is still used in Yup’ik schools to teach the Eskimo history to kids today. It was as I wrote in the book: so many of the elders died in these epidemics that parts of the culture were completely lost. It pleases me no end that some Yup’ik children have encountered for the first time these lost parts of their history in my book.