Two Old Women, 20th Anniversary Edition: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival

by Velma Wallis

Paperback, 2013




Harper Perennial (2013), Edition: 20 Anv, 160 pages


Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along from mother to daughter for many generations on the upper Yukon River in Alaska, this is the tragic and shocking story--with a surprise ending--of two elderly women abandoned by a migrating tribe that faces starvation brought on by unusually harsh Arctic weather and a shortage of fish and game.

User reviews

LibraryThing member AbigailAdams26
A good friend of mine was once aghast to hear that I had given my grandmother a copy of Velma Wallis's Two Old Women for her birthday, inscribed as follows: To Gran, the strongest woman I know, with love on your 90th Birthday, Abby. Apparently the women of her family, regardless of their age, did not like to be thought "old," and it would have been considered an unpardonable breach of good manners for my friend to have given any of her elders a book with such a title. For my part, I was dismayed, though perhaps not astonished, given our image-obsessed culture, that anyone would consider "old" such a perjorative term, or think of age as something to be ashamed of and hidden, rather than celebrated.

I also recall thinking that if a woman didn't know she was old at ninety, or could take offense at a heartfelt gift, meant to express love and deep respect for her wisdom and strength, than she must be sadly lacking in either reason or dignity; and I was glad that such a thing could not be said of the women of my family. But since it would most DEFINITELY have been an unpardonable breach of good manners to have expressed such a sentiment to her, I simply replied, "I do not think my grandmother will be offended."

This wonderful book, based upon a legend passed down among the Athabascan women of Alaska, relates the story of two old women who are cast out by their tribe one hard winter. Two old complainers, who seem to have little to contribute to the welfare of the group, Ch'idzigyaak and Sa' have become an untenable burden to a people struggling to survive in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and it is decided that they must be abandoned.

But it is not the young alone who have courage, and when these two old women set out to "die trying," they discover that they still have what it takes to survive. Their knowledge of old fishing grounds stands them in good stead, and when they are reunited with the People, they demonstrate that they do indeed have something vital to contribute: the knowledge that comes with experience and age.

As a story of survival, Two Old Women is an engrossing, exciting read. As a fable about aging, the place of the elderly in a culture, and reconciliation between the generations, it was truly moving. I was impressed that no one was villified in the story, and each decision reached, however much we might disagree with it in today's world, made sense in the context of that time and place. I always hesitate to use the word "inspirational," as it has been so abused that it seems to have lost all meaning...but there doesn't seem to be any help for it. This truly was an inspirational book, and I highly recommend it to people of all ages.

And as for my grandmother? When we had the misfortune to lose her a few years back, we found this among her books. She had been in the habit of underlining any bit of text she found especially moving or meaningful. Almost every paragraph was underlined...
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LibraryThing member krau0098
I got this book from my mom (they are moving and wanted to get rid of some books). This was a surprisingly engaging novella/folk tale about two old women who are abandoned by their tribe during a particularly tough winter.

Both the tribe and the old women end up learning a lot about their limits and what is important to them as a result of this abandonment. It was a quick read and a good story. I found myself surprisingly sucked into the tale. I enjoyed the survival elements and hearing about people of that time and how they survived in such harsh conditions.

The writing style is very stark and simple (normally not my favorite style of writing to read) but it matched the style of the tale well.

Overall a well done folktale that I enjoyed reading. I would recommend if you are interested in tribal Alaska, survival, or the process of aging.
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LibraryThing member christinejoseph
alaska legend @ betrayal, courage, survival

Based on an Athabascan legend passed along from mother to daughter for many generations on the upper Yukon River in Alaska, this is the tragic and shocking story--with a surprise ending--of two elderly women abandoned by a migrating tribe that faces starvation brought on by unusually harsh Arctic weather and a shortage of fish and game. The story of survival is told with suspense by Velma Wallis, whose subject matter challenges the taboos of her past. Yet, her themes are modern--empowerment of women, the graying of America, Native American ways.… (more)
LibraryThing member sdunford
Sometimes "little" books are the best -- this retelling of an old Athabaskan tale is spare and beautiful. Well worth the read.
LibraryThing member AuthorMarion
In this well-told tale of two tribewomen who are in their old age we see what determination can do. Having earned the respect of their tribe these two women have been content to let others do for them over the years. But their age hinders the tribespeople's movements and they are facing a brutal winter. The chief makes the decision to turn these two out into the harshness of the bleak Alaskan Yukon to live or die.

Together these two women forge a bond of friendship and recall the skills of their younger days, conquering the pain of unused muscles and fear of the unknown to survive even the harshest of conditions. The story comes full circle when they again meet up with their tribe and the chief who once turned them out now finds he and his people have need of their wisdom.

A wonderful book for just about everyone. Full of hope and determination.
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LibraryThing member jmyers24
An Alaskan tribe faces starvation so elects to leave two old women behind. The women use their collective wisdom to survive and eventually reunite with the tribe and save them. It is an engaging tale of survival and the value of each individual, especially of older individuals, within the collective life of the community.… (more)
LibraryThing member EowynA
Based on a Native American (or, as the Canadians say, First Nation people) story from the time when the tribes were nomadic. The tribe was starving, and could not support the two old women any more. So they are left stranded, with a tent and a hatchet and the clothes on their backs. The two women decide not to give up, but to do what they must. They set snares, and catch a rabbit that lasts them a long time, mostly as soup. They walk to a place one of them remembers from long, long ago. They depend on one another, and survive, against expectation. It is a small book, simply and well told. It has the feel of the long version of a story often retold. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member coolpinkone
This book is a small and quick read and two very determined older women who brave the elements and use their age and wisdom to make it despite being left behind by the tribe due to their age.
LibraryThing member smknuth1
The Athabaskan legend is a reminder to youth of the importance of the elderly; a reminder to the elderly to keep moving, keep living, and keep teaching; and a reminder to everyone to be kind, forgive, and contribute.
LibraryThing member cathyskye
Protagonist: two old Athabaskan women
Setting: the Arctic Circle, many many generations ago

Another unusually harsh winter was coming to the Arctic Circle. The tribe
was starving. Everywhere they went, they took care of two old women who did
nothing but complain. For the survival of the tribe, the chief decided to
leave the two old women behind. No one voiced dissent. At first the two old
women were in shock. They couldn't believe what had happened. However it
wasn't long before the younger of the two said, "Yes, in their own way they
have condemned us to die! They think that we are too old and useless. They
forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going
to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting." This story is based on
an Athabaskan Indian legend passed along from mothers to daughters for many
generations on the upper Yukon River in Alaska. It is told by Velma Wallis,
herself an Athabaskan, and the story of getting this book published is just
as good as the tale itself.
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LibraryThing member fglass
A Indian legend about two determined elderly women who have been left out by their families to pass away quietly and alone in the wilderness. These two octogenarians must make concessions and work together to survive.

This is a story of adventure, friendship and strength that gives octogenarian readers two beautiful heroines to look up to.… (more)
LibraryThing member bibliophileofalls
This was a good book. Simple, straightforward, no complex nuances to worry about. I felt it read more like a young person's book. It showed the perserverence of these two old women and the hardships they went through in a harsh, unforgiving climate.
LibraryThing member emmee1000
This is an inspiring survival story, with lessons in human nature included!
LibraryThing member varwenea
Contents of the story – 4 stars
Writing style and quality – 2 stars
Illustrations - +0.5 stars

This novella about two old women (literally) is an Alaskan legend from the Arctic Circle region in the modern day Fort Yukon and Chalkyitsik. While it is a legend, the story is based on realities of survival in the Arctic and the ways of the Native American people, which is in fact referred to as “The People” in the book.

Early in the story, the tribe is suffering during a harsh winter, and the chief/council made the rarely-done decision of leaving two old women behind while the tribe journeyed on. These two women have been cared for by the tribe for many years and are prone to complaining. They were left with all their belongings, including a bundle of babiche and a hatchet. After accepting their predicament, these two made the decision to survive, even if they may ‘die trying’.

The story is expectedly heartwarming. The described skills represent a lifetime of surviving in the outdoors. For the modern mind, it’s almost mind-boggling. Hunting is not just for food, but clothing, shelter, and carriers for water. Parts of a tree provide fire, shelter, baskets, tools. In their spare time, they make clothing, tools, shelter, plus dry and store food for the winter. The most important gem is the realization that their lives are not over yet, that they have a lifetime of skills to leverage and to teach others. Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending.

This book is great for anyone who is struggling with aging, a good reminder that life doesn’t end till you die.

On Aging:
“We have learned much during our long lives. Yet there we were in our old age, thinking that we had done our share in life. So we stopped, just like that. No more working like we used to, even though our bodies are still healthy enough to do a little more than we expect of ourselves.”
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LibraryThing member Honeysucklepie
Alhamdulillah, I picked this up at the right time. I felt guilty for it sitting on my shelf for so long, but really it was waiting for this time. My own decrepitude, whining, and recent knee injury has made me feel like my time is over, that's it, I'm old, ain't going to get better. The story of these women, abandoned, in their old age by their people during hungry times gives me courage. They survived! They challenged their bodies and drew upon their skills and knowledge, that lay dormant when they were with their tribe, as grumpy complacent elders. This book made my heart ache, but it also made me proud of them, and of their tribe (in the end).… (more)
LibraryThing member lycomayflower
When two old women are left behind by their tribe in the Alaska winter during times of great hardship, the women decide to work together to dust off their skills and survive. And they do. I was hoping this was going to ping my love for fiction that details how various kinds of work get done, but for whatever reason it didn't. Some of that kind of detail is here, but I just wasn't wrapped up in it as I expected to be. YMMV.… (more)
LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
This short novel is a retelling of a native Athabascan legend from before Western culture was known in Alaska. Two complaining, irritating old women are left behind by their tribal group when the group hits hard times, and all are facing starvation. However, rather than dying (as expected), the two women struggle to survive through the winter, learning strength, self-reliance and friendship along the way. Meanwhile, the tribal group does less well at surviving than the old women, and learns that they may have misjudged the two, and must come to re-evaluate their priorities.… (more)
LibraryThing member librisissimo
Substance: An old Athabaskan (Alaskan native) tale of two old women left by the starving band to die. Alone in the winter wilderness, they summon up reserves of courage, old skills, and new determination. They walk to a former camping-ground and not only survive, but manage during the next summer to accumulate a surplus of food that saves their band the next winter. The author pads the basic story with unnecessary PC elements and counter-cultural traits for some characters, but it remains a powerful tale of repentance and forgiveness. No mention is made of any moral foundation, however, nor of any gods - I don't know anything about Athabaskan religion, but it seems unlikely there is no kind of deity or spirit from whom some spiritual message would be conveyed by the story (as in Aesop's fables, most traditional tales point to some "moral" at the end).
Style: Could use some polishing by an astute editor, but the narrative is natural and heart-felt.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
People have to assist them as they walk with their walking sticks complaining. One hard winter The People are starving and it is decided that the two old women will be left. The two old women are devastated and nearly give up, when one says "..they have condemned us to die? They think that we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live? So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting. So the 75 and 80 year olds set about "trying to live". This is a beautiful story of survival, of friendship of women, of old age and the value of old age to the community.

The author was born in 1960 in Fort Yukon. She grew up in a traditional Athabaskan family. She has lived alone in her father's trapping cabin 12 miles from the village for dozens of years. She passed a high school equivalency exam and began to write down a legend her mother had told her about the two abandoned old women and their survival.
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LibraryThing member brsquilt
Historical tale of survival. Very good.


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