Naomi J. Williams – “Snow Men” in One Story #131, 1/30/2010

Tlingit canoe full of warriors in Lituya Bay, as drawn by La Perouse expedition, July 1786. Source: Brown University

There is a big disagreement in my family about what happens if you drown and your body is never found. My aunts say that you are turned into one of the Land Otters. The Land Otters come up out of the water, in the dark, and steal away the living. You cannot see them, but sometimes you can hear them – they whistle. We lie in our huts at night and listen for whistling, because we lost a canoe when we arrived for the salmon season, and afterward we found only four of the bodies.

I did not particularly like this story – though I did not dislike it at all – and I feel bad about that (not to mention stupid, since Naomi Williams received a Pushcart Prize in 2009, so who am I to not like her work), because it is well-meaning and has some real research behind it and I’m all for voices of other cultures and I take seriously my White American Guilt. I have two other Inuit-voiced (or at least Northwest Native American-voiced) works in my Online Fiction Etc. To Read And Love page: Denise Duhamel’s The Woman With Two Vaginas, which she calls a feminist interpretation of Inuit myth and legend in poetry, and Vivian Faith Prescott’s recent digital chapbook on White Knuckle Press, Slick. Some of my best friends are Inuit! No, I have no Inuit friends, but that just seemed like the next step in the defensiveness I can’t seem to avoid here. Because I wish I’d loved this story.

Here’s the problem, to me: defamiliarization has become familiar, which is ironic and kind of sad. The “winged war canoes” (sailing ships), “white food that looked like maggots” (Wheat? Barley? Rice?), “juice that looked like blood and smelled like spoiled berries” (wine: after all, they were French). It’s just so familiar. In her Q&A on the One Story website, Williams explained the research she did for this story. It’s based on the arrival of the La Pérouse expedition in Lituya Bay (on what is now the Alaskan coast) and their encounter with the Tlingit people, stories of which the Tlingit have been handing down for 200 years. I respect the accuracy of the story, the faithfulness to Tlingit legends and customs, and the reactions to the French explorers. I’m just not that interested, as it reads like every other “oh, here come white man, destroy peace” story that every eighth grader has written.

No, that isn’t fair at all. The story doesn’t even go into the tragedy of native cultures as Europeans decided this land was uninhabited and therefore their own. It’s a story about a teenage girl who lost her cousin, the boy she was to marry, and is trying to get used to his younger brother, who she will now marry. Then these Snow Men sail in, and, as happened sometimes 18th century sailings, they lose many of their men in one morning. There’s a point of agreement there, and the girl has some empathy for them and some curiosity about how they will deal with the deaths of so many of their people. She recognizes the “excitement” that accompanies such a tragedy, and the cultural significance of the loss of her cousin and the men with him: “I was thinking, This is one of those terrible things that I will remember always, I will tell this story to my children and grandchildren.” And she recognizes the difference between someone else’s loss, and her own: “It happened again when the Snow Men drowned, but with out any sadness – just the excitement.”

She has a brief encounter with a couple of the sailors as she is out picking berries. There’s this aura of impending doom, as if she is about to be raped, but it never happens; they are just mourners of different souls. She meets up with her little cousin again and has an interaction with him concerning a canteen left behind by one of the sailors. This, at the very end of the story, is a wonderful little play, as they deal with each other in ways that remind me of teenagers anywhere: what is his motivation? What does she want me to do? It’s lovely, and it makes the story worth reading. I just wish we could’ve done without the berry juice and winged canoes.