Tag Archives: legend

Sealskin by Su Bristow

I was so pleased to read a book with a good strong plot. Sealskin by Su Bristow moves along at a steady pace and the characters develop through the narrative. I’ve been reading some novels that have little plot and don’t hold my interest from one bedtime reading to the next. This is a strong story, well told, with plenty of authenticity despite the magical legend from which Su Bristow takes her inspiration.

Sealskin– a summary

The story is told from the (3rdperson) point of view of Donald, a young man who lives outside the village with his widowed mother. His father was drowned at sea. He has been bullied as a child and as an adult avoids everyone except his mother. But this is a coastal village, which relies on all adults to bring in the catches, and the men to crew the boats. Donald prefers his own boat, finding crabs close to the shore.

One day he sees a group of seals, selkies, who have slipped out of their skins and are dancing on the strand. Donald is entranced. He finds and hides a skin, so when the selkies flee to the safety of the water, one is left. He catches and rapes her.

She is distressed, of course, so her takes her home and his mother helps him hide her. When he can’t find the seal skin that will enable her to return to the sea they realise she must stay. They hatch an elaborate plot and Donald marries the girl. The village is suspicious, entranced and then hostile in turn to the frail young beauty who does not speak but is intuitive in her responses.

The couple come to love each other as Donald works to atone for the wrong he did. He gains confidence as he supports his wife, becomes a father, stands up for himself and for her and eventually takes over as captain of a boat. His life appears to have turned round but there are still painful challenges ahead of him.

Reading Sealskin

This novel is an adaptation of a selkie legend from northern Scotland, as a page at the end of the book explains. Su Bristow has taken the legend, woven her own characters into its outline, and written movingly about love, atonement, foreignness and loss. It is also a coming-of-age story as Donald gets the support he needs to take his place in the village community. The strongest theme is that of community, how the villagers are interdependent, and are a source of strength and a threat to those who can’t fit in.

The rituals associated with marriage, birth, death and all souls’ night are a strong part of this story. Donald must learn to trust the individuals in the community. And then to extend his hand to those who are not so readily accepted.

The writing

Su Bristow won the 2013 Exeter Novel Prize with Sealskin. Most of the action takes place through dialogue, something of an achievement since the selkie woman does not speak. But the coastal setting is powerfully evoked. Here is Donald out in his small boat on his own one night.

There were seals on the skerry tonight, no more than fifty yards of black water and hidden rocks away, on the little strand that was only clear when the tide was low. They looked as though they were basking in the moonlight, though it was far too chill for that. As he watched, a couple more dragged themselves up from the sea, heavy and awkward, moving slowly up the sand. They were rolling, heads swaying to and fro, buffeting each other as they moved clumsily forward. (3)

And although we know what will happen next, this setting, the place where sea and land meet in an every-changing configuration, this liminal space and the interplay of land and sea are vital elements in this story.

Slowly, by just a few minutes each day, light began to come back to the world. Out at sea, it was the birds that brought change, some moving north as the retreating ice opened up new places, and others arriving from the unimaginable south. But on land, the signs were everywhere – in the new green shoots, the urgency of birdsong and the rush of meltwater down from the hills. There was a restlessness, an itch in the blood. (199)

Although this is a tale of magic, it does what fiction does best – transport us to another world to better show us our own.

Sealskin by Su Bristow, published in 2017 by Orenda Books. 226pp

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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women retells the Alaskan legend celebrating the fortitude and wisdom of the two old women of the title. As their tribe approaches a difficult winter with few resources, the chief and council decide that The People must move on, but leave behind the two old women who are draining their resources.

Two Old Women by Velma Willis is the 30th in the older women in fiction series on Bookword. You can find others through the various links on the blog.

The Story of Two Old Women

It is the time before Westerners arrived in the Yukon. The People must live off what the land provides. Some years the land is more bountiful than others. The People are moving to their winter quarters but finding it impossible to support themselves. The chief’s decision is a difficult one, but it is argued that these two old women contribute very little, are a burden on the younger folk and moreover they complain all the time. To leave them behind might save the Qwich’in People.

Of course they survive or this would not be a legend. But at first the women are stunned and shocked. It is hard to be abandoned, especially by your daughter and grandson.

The large band of famished people slowly moved away, leaving the two women sitting in the same stunned position on their piled spruce boughs. Their small fire cast a soft orange glow onto their weathered faces. A long time passed before the cold brought Ch’idzigyaak out of her stupor. (12)

Ch’idzigyaak is 80 years old. Her younger companion is 75. In the beginning Sa’ is the stronger in spirit and body.

At that moment, Sa’ lifted her head in time to see her friend’s tears. A rush of anger surged within her. How dare they! Her cheeks burned with the humiliation. She and the other old woman were not close to dying! Had they not sewed and tanned for what the people gave them? They did not have to be carried from camp to camp. They were neither helpless nor hopeless. Yet they had been condemned to die. (12-13)

It is Sa’ who encourages her friend to hope and then to take action.

“Yes in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think 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.” (14)

The imminent death would be dreadful, either from the cold or from hungry wild animals. Predation, as we have learned to call it. The chief’s decision to leave them behind reflects his perception of the old women‘s position as the least useful members of the band.

As winter approaches they set off to find a safe place to shelter, to find food and wood for warmth. As they go they tell each other a little about their pasts, and find that both have been resourceful and have learned survival skills. They meet and overcome difficulties. They support each other through their struggles.

Their survival teaches the rest of the band, when they are reunited, important lessons about perseverance but also about the value of old folk.

The Old Women

Legends are handed down for a reason. They pass on important lessons from the older generation to the younger. This legend of the old women is full of the importance of not giving up: “let us die trying.” And of the mutual value of different people within a community. It reminds us that old women, even if they are whiners, are not ‘old and useless’. The legend tells us that even age does not limit the ability to accomplish what is necessary.

The legend counters the strong story of dependence and decline that old people, especially older women, have told about them even today. As Sa’ says, older people are neither helpless nor hopeless. Much current social debate assumes that older people have nothing to offer as they become increasingly dependent, and that the world and life belongs to the young.

It is no coincidence that this story is introduced as a mother retelling it to her daughter as they collect the wood for winter. It reminds the reader of the harsh conditions that face many people even today. In this short novel these hardships and challenges are made vivid through the author’s personal knowledge of living near the Yukon. The author is from the tribe of the Qwich’in People.

Two Old Women: an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival by Velma Wallis (1993) Harper Collins 130pp

Illustrated by Jim Grant.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Photo credit: The Silmarillion via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND


Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews