We often look at history as so far away from us that it appears to be of no significance for our lives, but we should never forget that everything is always interconnected. History, as a matter of fact, is nothing less than the societal equivalent to the experiences each one of us makes from the moment we are born until we die. Just as personal experience shapes character, history moulds society. We are who we are because we went through all that was – if we are aware of it or not. This is what the novel And She Was by Cindy Dyson shows on the individual as well as the societal level taking as examples a blond drifter from a dysfunctional family stranded on the small island Unalaska in the Bering Sea and four women of the native Aleut community there who inherited from their female ancestors the roles of “guardian and avenging angels”.
Information on the author Cindy Dyson is scarce. It seems that she was born in Seattle, Washington, USA, in 1967 and grew up in Alaska as from three years old. In her early twenties she followed her latest flame to the small fishing town Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, where she worked as a cocktail waitress for a while. Right afterwards she moved on to Journalism School at the University of Missouri in Columbia from which she graduated cum laude. She worked as a reporter and a freelancer for some time writing mainly articles for various renowned periodicals and a few non-fiction work-for-hire books, including three literary biographies. In 2005 she made her successful literary debut with the novel And She Was. Cindy Dyson lives with her husband and children near Glacier National Park, Montana, USA.
The protagonist of And She Was is thirty-one years old, blond and, thanks to a whim of her parents, she carries the name of liquor they both liked: Brandy. On the night of 5 July 1986 she arrives in the fishing town Dutch Harbor on Unalaska, a small island on the string of the Aleutians in the Bering Sea, where she joins Thad, a man whom she met on the mainland just a few days earlier. Like every so often before she let herself drift in tow of the man she “loves” instead of making her own way, but life with Thad on Unalaska turns out to be quite different from what she has known in the past. Working on a trawler for the season, he is away for days on end and apart from her job as a waitress at the Elbow Room there’s little to keep her busy. The population of the remote island consists mainly of fishermen and native Aleuts who are suspicious of, if not hostile towards the stranger of so obviously European descent. Moreover, a considerable number of the residents is rather too fond of liquor and drugs which makes it even harder for Brandy to make friends. Thus to pass her spare time, she begins to study the history of the islands, which has been paved with blood and tears from the moment white men set foot on them, and unknowingly she gets involved in its late repercussions. When curiosity makes her investigate the meaning of mysterious bathroom graffiti that she found in the Elbow Room and at the cabana she lives in, she gets into the way of four Aleut women who share a secret that implies a murderous duty passed on to them from their female ancestors together with family history.
The novel And She Was is the self-portrait of a rather late drifter who, as the story advances, realises that she must grow up at last and take responsibility for her future to give her existence meaning. At the same time, it is a history of the Aleut people or more precisely of Aleut women who had the courage to break the taboos of their tribe and to take fate into their own hands in order to secure the survival of their people, notably their children, after Russian explorers had discovered their string of islands in 1741. These two independent story lines are skilfully interlaced by alternation and slowly gravitate towards each other to meet in the novel’s present. It’s obvious that Brandy’s story is largely based on the author’s personal experience which accounts for the vivid and authentic depiction of places and everyday life on Unalaska. Similarly impressive images together with thoroughly researched historical facts evoke traditional Aleut communities and their continued sufferings under Russian, later American rule. Also the various characters having part in the plot all appear true to life, be they rough fishermen, drunk native Aleut coke whores or a gay barkeeper. The novel’s language is unpretentious and clear, thus easy to follow although at least some of the references to the 1980s might be lost on readers born after 1990 and even on me because I didn’t grow up in the USA.
To cut a long story short, And She Was by Cindy Dyson is another novel that I gladly recommend on this blog, not least because it is set in a – Northern – corner of the world that very few outsiders like me will ever see in person and, more importantly, because it sheds light on the largely ignored, bleak history of native Americans on the Aleutian Islands. In any case, it’s an interesting and touching read that is definitely worth the time.
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