the traditional delicacies of the native Inupiaq people in Alaska
is something called utniq pickled walrus flipper. Its
not a simple thing to prepare.
You need to first coat the flippers with the animals blubber.
Then you wrap them in the walruss own skin, turned inside
out. This package is stored in a cool, dry place for as long as
a year. Meanwhile, the fermenting process works its strange magic.
results are said to be pungently delicious in fact, some
would-be David Chang is probably working on a restaurant-grade version
right now. The problem with pickled walrus flipper is that, if it
is not prepared very carefully, it can become rife with botulism.
William L. Iggiagruk Hensleys often harrowing new memoir,
Fifty Miles From Tomorrow, set in the far northern Kotzebue
Sound region of Alaska, he recounts an evening in the late-1940s
the author was 6 at the time when he and his adopted
family sat down to a meal of utniq that had, unbeknownst to them,
gone very bad. Before long, his adoptive father and pregnant stepsister
had died. One stepbrother, in a hallucinatory daze, survived by
paddling a small boat 10 miles to the nearest town.
many memoirists, this kind of catastrophic event would be enough
to hang an entire book upon. Mr. Hensley many Inupiaq received
their surname from visiting missionaries; Mr. Hensley was partly
named after his maternal grandfather and his adoptive family,
Alaska Natives, lived along the Bering Sea, 29 miles within the
Arctic Circle. They lived in tarpaper or sod houses and survived
on what they could fish, hunt or grow in the regions abbreviated
summertime. It would be decades before the family or its neighbors
had electricity, telephones, indoor toilets or medical care. Every
pair of hands was vital.
in Fifty Miles From Tomorrow these deaths take up only
a few short paragraphs. Mr. Hensley has written a book that is so
full of incident, yet so stoic, that life and narrative
simply marches on.
Hensleys account of what its like to grow up in the
far north, 50 miles from the International Date Line, is rarely
less than gripping. He did not know his father, a Russian-born fur
trader, and his Alaska Native mother gave him up to his uncles
seminomadic family when he was 2 or 3. I think of those early
years of my life as the twilight of the Stone Age, he writes.
The family was always engaged in inuuniaq, the serious business
of staying alive.
Miles From Tomorrow can read like a sturdy primer on cold-weather
survival. Mr. Hensley writes observantly about the killing and cleaning
of seals, about constructing sod houses, about making toys from
the talons of an owl and brooms from its wings, and about the intricacies
of making coffee each morning by first chopping chunks of ice to
in this part of Alaska are nine months long, and for much of that
time the sun is merely a weak blur on the horizon. Mr. Hensley recalls
times when the temperature would not rise above negative-40 degrees
Fahrenheit for weeks at a time. Physical labor was impossible: If
you worked up a sweat in the frigid cold, youd begin to freeze
the moment your body started to cool.
was a difficult life, Mr. Hensley writes, and to those from
the outside world, we might have seemed destitute. But he
makes it clear that his childhood was a good deal of fun as well.
In the spring, he says, we could not resist playing mauligauraq.
Mauliq means to accidentally fall through the ice. I guess
you had to be there.
tone of Fifty Miles From Tomorrow abruptly changes when
Mr. Hensley leaves Alaska for Tennessee, after a visiting Baptist
missionary arranges for him to attend a religious academy. By all
accounts, he was a success there he became the co-captain
of his schools football team, dated cute girls (including
Rita Coolidges sister) and was voted class president.
it was a bittersweet time, he writes. Mr. Hensley was not sure where
he fit in the South of the 1950s. On Southern buses, he writes,
I sat neither in front with the white people nor in the back
with the black people. I always chose a seat right in the middle.
Hensley goes on to attend George Washington University in Washington
during the early-1960s, the beginning of the era of identity politics,
and becomes deeply engaged with what is happening back home in Alaska.
When Alaska became a fledgling state in 1959, he realized, his people
were at risk of losing their land as tribal councils lost political
control to new city councils. Many Alaska Natives had never bothered
to acquire deeds to their property.
becomes politicized I was an angry young man,
he writes and at the precocious age of 25 is elected to the
Alaska Legislature, where he becomes an influential voice on Alaska
Native issues. After years of his tireless lobbying, the United
States government in 1971 set aside 44 million acres and nearly
$1 billion for native people in Alaska. Mr. Hensleys accounts
of his victorious political battles, however, as important as they
were, cant compete with his more vivid tales of growing up
aura of sadness envelops the books second half. While Mr.
Hensley was working like a whirling dervish on various
political fronts, his personal life was a shambles. We read almost
nothing about his first wife, or about his current wife and children.
I had been a failure, he writes, as a husband
and father. Mr. Hensleys memoir instructive,
gripping and perhaps too flinty skims over tragic events
as if they were black ice.