I’ve been a teacher for forty years, so the teaching instinct is strong. Maybe even dominant. Two of my books are Alaskan historical fiction, written because I wanted our village kids to know something about their history, and because I wanted teachers to have a book to teach that history. Minuk, about the first contact of the Yup’ik Eskimos with outsiders, is one of my favorite books because there was so much first person stuff available–journals and so forth– that the book practically wrote itself.
But my other history, Dancing at the Odinochka, was a different proposition, because my heroine wasn’t a fictional character like Minuk, and because the research materials weren’t as good.
This is how it started. When I was a girl growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, everyone knew who Erinia Pavaloff was, though there weren’t very many who knew that was her name. Everyone called her Grandma Callahan. She lived a few houses down from my stepfather’s mother, who was her niece.
Sometime around 1936 Grandma Callahan hand wrote a little five-page memoir of her life. The memoir was lost and only found years later when a sorter at the Salvation Army in Seattle was going through a box of papers before burning them. More than thirty years after Grandma Callahan’s death my half- sister, Johanna, Erinia’s great- great- niece, sent me a copy of the memoir which had been printed in the Alaskan Journal.
And that was how I first learned that Grandma Callahan’s name was Erinia and that she’d been right in the middle of practically everything that was going on at that amazing time in Alaskan history: the telegraph line, the explorers, the sale by Russia to the U.S.
I’d always wanted to write about those years on the Yukon and Erinia’s story seemed like a good way to do it. Of course I wanted my book to be an accurate, absolutely real portrayal of the times and place and people.
My only first-hand information came from our friend Altona Brown, an old Athabascan woman in our village of Ruby who had told me endless stories that she’d learned from her mother and father about native life in the old days.(The old woman in Toughboy and Sister and Winter Camp is modeled, very closely, on Altona.) Her grandmother had lived in an underground house like the ones in Odinochka. That’s how recently contact had occured along the river.
Then I researched like crazy, read every book I could find about the period.
Father Jette, the Catholic priest at Nulato from 1898 to 1924 was fluent in the Athabascan language. He compiled an incredible ethnography of the Nulato culture with which it was possible to write authentically about the native customs in Erinia’s time. There was much less to be found about the lives of the Russians in Alaska. The best of the writing about the Yup’ik, which I used in my book Minuk, was done by women, who invariably wrote enthrallling detail–how many came to supper, and what was done for a toothache–so that one could reconstruct a life from their journals. Not so on the Yukon. No Russian women writing there at the time of first contact.
The Yukon explorers wrote journals, but there were endless, maddening contradictions about dates or events or people. And many of those Yukon explorers simply didn’t see the local people as worthy of notice, and were certainly not interested in the native cultures. (For example,some of the most extraordinary people at that time, like Luken in Odinochka,were Indian or Eskimo, some half-Russian, who spoke sometimes five languages, were skilled in every manner of wood lore, could travel for the Russians in -50 below and accomplish anything. A dozen books could have been written about the exploits of these men. However, the explorers were quite dismissive of their abilities and gave them little credit in their writings.)
Erinia wrote five pages, period, and most of that was about the murder of Ivan Kozenvikoff. She didn’t describe the people at the odinochka, except that she called Kozevnikoff a jolly old man. Since there was no way of knowing what the people were like, I made everyone nice, just because that’s the kind of world I’d prefer, given my choice, and when you write a book you have that choice. I doubt very much if there were all as nice as I’ve written them.
But I was not happy about having to make up their personalities. I was writing about real people, my step-father’s relatives and the relatives of half the people I know on the Yukon, including my own children, but I didn’t know anything real about them–what they looked like, what made them laugh, what they were good at. I could only imagine how Erinia and the other characters reacted to the events and the travelers who came to Nulato. I was putting words into Erinia’s mouth and ideas into her head. I know this is done in historical fiction all the time, but I grew more and more uncomfortable with it. I imagined myself long dead and someone making a character in a book out of me, telling what I was thinking and saying. It began to seem like an incredible liberty.
I’m sure I’ll never tell a story with a real protagonist again.
When I read historical fiction I always want to know is how much of the book is true.
The events in Odinochka are real, though a few times I changed the date.(I went crazy trying to choose which things to write about. Nulato had so much history I had to leave out dozens of fascinating incidents,and people.) The murder scenes are taken right from Erinia’s memoirs.
All the characters in the book exept Nilaat, Stepan, and Mikhail were real people who lived in the odinochka or visited during Erinia’s childhood.
This is what happened to Erinia’s family after the Russian sale. Erinia married Cherosky and he prospected with her brother Pitka for gold. They found gold near Circle City but lost all their claims to the white men, who said they couldn’t file because they weren’t citizens as they were part Indian.
Minook was the first person to find gold near Rampart, but he lost those claims as well. In 1904 Minook went to court and asked to be made an American citizen. The judge ruled that Minook was already a citizen according to the provisions of the purchase from Russia. But of course by that time someone else had already mined the gold Minook and Pitka and Cherosky had found.
Kate had two sons and Erinia had two daughters who survived childhood. Pitka and Sarah were the parents of eight children, one of whom was my children’s great grandmother, Lena Pitka Milligan Chute. My stepfather’s mother, Louise Minook Harper was one of Minook and Liza’s sixteen children.
And all the children had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and now the family is huge. I have a family tree that was put together by Alice and Hazel Knox, nieces of Erinia’s, showing all the decendents of Marina and Ivan Pavaloff.
If we stretch it out, it reaches seventy feet.