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Chukchi novel tells of a time when humans and whales were kin

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: May 16
  • Published May 16

When the Whales Leave

By Yuri Rytkheu. Translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 120 pages. $14

’When the Whales Leave, ’ by Yuri Rytkheu.

Yuri Rytkheu, the best known of Chukchi writers, was born in 1930 to a family of hunters and trappers, in Uelen, a village on the coast of what is now Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula. He studied literature at Leningrad University and was a highly regarded and well-published writer during Soviet days. He died in 2008.

Three of his novels have been translated into English, and all three inform readers of the lives of the Chukchi people. The latest of these, a delightful small book originally published in 1975, will remind Alaska readers of the ties between our northern peoples. “When the Whales Leave” is also a cautionary tale, pertinent today for thinking about relationships between human society and the natural world.

“Nau was fast breeze, green grass, wet shingle, high cloud, and endless blue sky, herself and all these things at once. . . . She had never yet thought of herself as separate from those who dwelled in ground warrens, or nested on cliffs, or crawled in the grass, nor thought of herself as different from them. Even the sullen black rocks were alive and dear to her.”

Nau is First Woman, who falls in love with a whale. The whale, known as Reu, transforms into a man to live with her. She gives birth, first, to whale babies, and then to human babies, who populate the known world. In the place known as Shingled Spit, where the Great Love begins, the close kinship between humans and whales is honored.

This creation story, an original, imaginative work by the author, draws upon Chukchi traditional stories Rytkheu heard as a boy. In three parts, Nau lives to know her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-greats. Each generation draws farther from her wisdom and warnings until one boastful and greedy descendant treats the natural world, including whales, with hurtful disrespect. The loving and reciprocal ties between people and other beings are broken, and the whales leave.

Rytkheu’s morality tale may well remind Alaskans of indigenous stories and even current practices from our own shores. “When the Whales Leave” includes scenes of women gathering “mouse food” from their caches while leaving tidbits in exchange and of a hunter giving a drink of fresh water to a dead seal. Both of these rituals are known to Alaskans.

Reu, the man who was a whale, says on his deathbed, “The most important wisdom I leave you with is to never forget you have mighty kindred. You are descended from the giants of the sea, and every whale is your brother.”

An introduction by Gretel Erlich, an American writer who has spent long periods of time with the indigenous people of Greenland, provides context for the book. She discusses the role of whales, “at the center of existence, nutritionally and spiritually,” on both sides of the Bering Strait. She speaks of northern storytelling and its references to times in which the differences between people and animals were “porous and permeable,” allowing intermarriage and transformations.

Erlich explains that Rytkheu had witnessed the break-down of his people’s subsistence life and the traditions that surrounded it, and that he remembered the stories of the overharvest of whales and walruses by commercial whalers, and of the epidemics they brought. She writes, “He understood the necessity of holding the whole culture in your mind and heart, that if you don’t, the center won’t hold.”

In the middle section of the book, “an unheard-of disease came down upon the village.” The village leader at the time heads to the shore to seek a sign of what he should do, and he comes across a group of tiny people, each no bigger than the joint of his pinkie finger. The tiny men, with their tiny sledges and fly-sized dogs, tell him, “We are carrying disease.” The man loads them onto his own sledge and leads them away from his village, and the illness departs with them. No doubt this part of Rytkheu’s story has origins in the real epidemics of the past as well as traditional beliefs in mysterious little people and shamanism.

The simple English prose of the story seems ably translated from the original Russian, although some word choices may strike a reader as inexact. A traditional drum is described as a “tambourine,” reindeer are simply “deer,” kayaks are “rowed” with “oars,” and “gophers” and “waders” are some of the local animals. Many readers won’t know or care about the difference between rowing and paddling or that the animals called gophers were more likely Arctic ground squirrels, but Alaska readers might pause to wonder if the called-up pictures match Rytkheu’s intention.

Still, the language describing place and human emotion flows easily into a mystical, almost magical awareness of life’s gifts and our connections to the world beyond our own small selves. Here again is Nau, when she and her future husband first approach one another so closely that the whale’s blow sprays her: “The water was warm and full of light, the sun’s rays stroked her skin, and Nau felt a new and unfamiliar sense of tenderness, a kind of catch in her breast. She was panting and slightly dizzy, like when she sat too long atop a high cliff watching cloud shadows skitter across the sea.”

How fortunate we are to have this newly shared example of indigenous writing to add to our North American examples and to our understanding of relationships and good and bad behavior. Two of the author’s other novels, “A Dream in Polar Fog” and “The Chukchi Bible,” are also available in English translations.