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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