By Lily H. Tuzroyluke; Epicenter Press, 2023; 290 pages; $18.95
“My sister Qiviu started dying a week ago,” Kayaliruk, the main character in Lily Tuzroyluke’s debut novel “Sivulliq: Ancestor” states in the book’s opening line. By the next page her sister is gone. “Smallpox began on the coast,” Kayaliruk continues. “The Yankee whalers breathe out the disease like dragons.”
Modern readers are accustomed to futuristic post-apocalyptic novels where characters travel through landscapes littered with the dead. Tuzroyluke, an Indigenous author from Anchorage, has set her story in 1893 however, and the apocalypse she writes about actually occurred.
Kayaliruk is Inupiaq, and as those acquainted with Alaska history since contact with Europeans are aware, Alaska Native people, especially in Western Alaska, were decimated by waves of diseases brought in by whalers, miners, scientists and anyone else arriving from faraway lands, diseases Alaska Natives had no previous exposure to and no natural immunity against. In some villages during the epidemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, virtually every resident died.
Hollowed-out villages are just part of what Kayaliruk and her sons encounter in this book as they make their way through Arctic Alaska and across the Bering Sea. And Indigenous history isn’t all that Tuzroyluke taps into as she constructs a historical thriller set during a time when the centuries-old Inupiaq culture was upended by the arrival of outsiders.
What Tuzroyluke has done is shown how varied cultures clash in catastrophic ways. And perhaps in part because her own heritage is a blend of Inupiaq, Tlingit and Nisga’a, she recognizes that European and American cultures are themselves quite varied, further complicating interactions, and that not all Westerners are white. While the whalers she places aboard the ship hale from Scandinavia, Portugal, the Eastern United States and elsewhere, Ibai, who is the second primary character in the book, is Black. Black men comprised a significant proportion of the whalers who operated off the coast of Alaska in the 1890s, something that’s lately been focused on by Alaska historians, and surprised readers should understand that Ibai’s presence is historically accurate.
The story is written in first person present tense and told alternately by Kayaliruk and Ibai. I don’t wish to give away too many details, especially since, as noted, this book contains plenty of action even as it highlights a somewhat forgotten era of history. The brief summary is, the whaling vessel Erysichthon is captained by a nasty man named Merihim who is trapped in a loveless marriage with no children. When the ship stops along a remote beach and men go ashore, two of them encounter Kayaliruk and her children, who are fleeing the smallpox outbreak that has killed so many in their family. A conflict erupts, one crewman is killed, and the other seizes Kayaliruk’s five-year-old daughter Samaruna as a shield against Kayaliruk’s gunfire. When she is brought to the crew, Merihim determines that Samaruna is fit to be a child for his own family and takes her away. Kayaliruk and her boys, Ebrulik, who is 12, and eight-year-old Nauraq, begin their pursuit, determined to rescue their youngest family member.
What follows is a classic chase novel that allows Tuzroyluke to reconstruct the world of Western Alaska as it was being taken from the hands of its Indigenous residents but was not yet fully under the control of America. Accounts of the era, both fictional and factual, often present images of heroic whalers braving the seas, but the realities, as is always the case with such matters, were not so cut and dried.
The story Alaskans are comfortable telling ourselves is that, unlike much of the American West, Alaska was settled without sustained warfare. This papers over the epidemics that slashed Indigenous populations, in some places to a fraction of their original size. It overlooks the ways Alaska Natives were exploited by those seeking resource wealth. And it ignores the fact that whalers were depleting the food source that Indigenous residents depended upon for survival.
Tuzroyluke is bringing this history back to life, and she approaches it in a unique manner. As the main characters in this book are drawn into the kidnapping of Samaruna and try to comprehend what is happening, they each do so through their own viewpoints. Among the whalers, Tuzroyluke has not created a faceless crew of evil men. She’s assembled a group of individuals, each a product of their own unique histories. The same is true of the Inupiaq characters.
This is where Ibai becomes so crucial. As a Black man, and an educated one at that, he is set apart from the crew. Yet he is also a foreigner in a strange land, unfamiliar with its inhabitants. By writing half the book from his perspective, Tuzroyluke steps back from events and observes them through a set of eyes different from her own and, I suspect, most readers. Ibai despises Merihim and comes to hate whaling as well, and he knows nothing of the Inupiaq people. But he recognizes the injustice of removing Samaruna from her family. He’s caught in events beyond his control.
As is Kayaliruk, traumatized by the loss of so many family members and badly injured, enduring it all to reunite with her daughter. Aided first by an enigmatic woman named Nasauyaaq who is immensely skilled on the land, and then by her uncle, Ataŋauraq, who is similarly adept at sea travel, Tuzroyluke uses a sometimes heart-pounding pursuit to show how the Inupiaq created technologies and developed understandings of their land that were quite complex, and how this knowledge was transmitted through generations. And she does this largely without detracting from the plot line. Using their distinctive voices, she also develops Kayaliruk and Ibai into individual, multilayered characters.
For a first novel, “Sivulliq: Ancestor” is quite an accomplishment. What Tuzroyluke does next remains to be seen, but this book indicates that hers is a writing voice that has only begun to find itself. She put a lot of work into this novel. It shows.