“Sky Changes on the Kuskokwim”
By Clifton Bates; Cirque Press, 2022; 208 pages; $18
By the time Kim-boy is born, change has already arrived along the Kuskokwim River. A school and a store serve the tiny community he lives in, boats run on fuel, snowmachines traverse the tundra, small planes periodically descend from the sky, and a steady drip of white residents arrives, attempting to make their way in the remote village, usually leaving with their dreams shattered by the frequently difficult and often mundane realities of daily life in rural Alaska.
The shifting cultural climate Kim-boy experiences in his long lifetime underlies the plot of “Sky Changes on the Kuskokwim,” a recent novel by Chugiak author Clifton Bates. In a life marred by tragedy, Kim-boy, a Yup’ik man born in the fictional village of Qaviluk, where he spends most of his many years, grapples with the loss of old ways, and with the introduction of new values and practices that residents of the village quietly and fitfully adapt to.
Bates, who spent three decades in the Kuskokwim region, has seen the changes that have come over the land, and as an educator, been part of the forces that brought them. This lends personal insight to his critiques of systems that can easily fail their intended beneficiaries. With this somewhat incomplete but absorbing novel, he examines the impacts of these cultural upheavals on one representative life.
“Sky Changes” opens with Kim-boy as an old man visited by a young schoolgirl. She and her classmates have been assigned the task of interviewing Elders in the village, listening to their stories and organizing them into informal books. For Kim-boy, this brings the memories flowing,
“There was no plumbing in the houses and this was long before they got electricity let alone telephones,” Bates writes of the Qaviluk Kim-boy is born into. “Electricity didn’t arrive until the mid-1970s. Telephones came a few years after. There was a shortwave radio at the school, and when Kim-boy was older, almost every home had a CB radio. But there was not a written sign to be seen: there was no reason to label or advertise anything in this little group of huddled buildings...The manmade structures reflected utility, poverty and impermanence.”
This would undoubtedly mirror the Western Alaska Bates initially encountered when he came north from the Pacific Northwest. While Bush planes brought mail and the most essential supplies, residents still drew their livelihoods from the land, and the early chapters of this book recount Kim-boy’s childhood spent learning the requisite skills. Bates follows Kim-boy, his brother Cutty, his best friend Sammy, and his parents out beyond the village, gathering fish, ducks, berries, and other wild foods. This allows him to present to readers the subsistence cycles that forged Yup’ik culture in a challenging and sometimes deadly environment, methods now endangered by communications technologies and a shrinking world.
One gains from this section a sense of the isolation that still existed in the region just a few decades ago, when visitors from outside were generally people from other villages. White characters in this story, often arriving as teachers, rarely remain longer than a single year, leaving villagers with memories of people seen more as temporary curiosities than residents, some of them kind, others not so much.
[Latest ‘Alaska Quarterly Review’ is packed with great reading]
The idyll of Kim-boy’s youth is disrupted during his grade school years when his mother succumbs to the flu. A few months later his grief-stricken father, having turned to alcohol, falls through river ice and drowns. “He crashed right through that top layer of snow-covered ice and quickly vanished into that hidden, cold, wet trap. It was like the river had opened its mouth and devoured their father with one quick, shattering bite,” Bates writes, in one of his most descriptive passages.
None of this, it should be noted, is unusual. Rural Alaska can be a treacherous place, and life expectancies are lower than in urban parts of the state in part due to drownings, as well as the frequency of accidents brought by the unique environment and living conditions. One such accident is a key turning point later in the novel.
The boys are sent to live with their grandmother in the river’s one city, which goes unnamed but is clearly patterned on Bethel. For two kids accustomed to living on the land, not the street, it’s a bewildering metropolis. The temptations leading to trouble are many, and Cutty soon falls victim.
Kim-boy struggles in a school where the administration and staff are mostly unaware of the tragedies that have befallen him. The sequence provides Bates with an opportunity to highlight the cultural gaps and communication failures that can easily leave Native kids behind. It’s only with the aid of one teacher who takes interest in helping him that Kim-boy is able to master reading and succeed in a system that can’t adapt itself to the people it is meant to serve.
Bates follows Kim-boy into adulthood and back to Qaviluk. Like his father and brother before him, he takes to drinking, but a near tragedy brings that habit to an abrupt halt. Marriage and fatherhood arrive, but further losses ensue. Throughout, Kim-boy strives to persist in a world he doesn’t fully fit into. He understands the land from the lessons given by his parents, but modernity has arrived fully developed, without input from Qaviluk residents.
Kim-boy exists, in essence, as an everyman enduring the ups and downs of rural Alaskan life. His story offers an examination of how systems imposed from outside on an Indigenous culture, regardless of intent, too often fail to understand that culture, much less assist members of it in navigating the new ways forced on them. In many respects, Kim-boy and his friends and family have been made foreigners in their own homeland. “Sky Changes on the Kuskokwim” follows one man’s lifelong attempt to recover his place in a changing world not entirely of his own people’s making.
[Book review: A historical thriller with a depth of perspective, ‘Sivulliq’ is an impressive debut novel]