FAIRBANKS - Reading Jan Harper-Haines’ memoir, “Cold River Spirits: Whispers From A Family’s Forgotten Past,” I was reminded of long-ago Martin Thanksgivings. We’d gather relatives from all over, whether we got along or not, promising to keep simmering debates, arguments, and misunderstandings tamped down for the holiday. We also picked up strays — school chums with no place to go or in the midst of family fights, church friends with no family, other people who didn’t have a place or didn’t want to go to their place — mixing them in with family, making them, in effect, part of the family.
Those numerous people with differing backgrounds, circumstances, political leanings, various levels of spirituality and religion, and many years of the contempt that often pops up in families, all started out as individuals, separate entities with lots of baggage, opinions, and raison d’être. There were loud discussions that turned into arguments, ranting and raving over long-ago wrongs or perceived wrongs, and general chaos as each individual charted his or her own course throughout the day.
But as evening approached, and the meal was served, those individuals began to meld into one unit, cooperating and assisting, complimenting and praising, becoming a family in every sense of the word — a unit composed of people who care for and nurture one another, even though the blood ties were tenuous in some cases and non-existent in others. In the end, it didn’t matter.
Harper-Haines’s book has the same feel. She begins exploring her family’s past, introducing us to different characters, as it were, presenting each as an individual with their own peculiar and particular quirks, foibles and accomplishments.
We meet her grandmother, Louise, married to Samuel Harper (although she initially preferred his brother Walter, destined to greatness with explorer Hudson Stick, and an untimely end), in the village of Tanana. Sam and his four siblings spent their “formative” years at schools in the Lower 48, which gave them education and sophistication, but not the skills needed for surviving village hardships. When they were forced back to Tanana after their father, Irish-born Arthur Harper, ran out of money, “they never knew what hit them.” Half Athabascan on mother Jenny’s side, they had never lived the Native way. Only Walter, young enough that Jenny kept him with her, knew that life.
Louise and Samuel stayed in Tanana, and eventually had 11 children, although their first died soon after she was born. They raised their children half-Native, half-white. Louise told them the old tales of spirits and magic, although Sam scoffed at the old ways and insisted they be stopped. Louise only told the kids the stories when Sam was gone, which was often. He drove a mail sled throughout the area, going from one town to the next, away from home for days on end. Louise knew he was unfaithful to her while he was gone — Harper-Haines writes: “My mother ... talked about her father Sam, and mentioned children appearing along the trail where he delivered mail by dog sled — children who looked so much like Sam that people joked about it.”
Harper-Haines’ mother, Flora Jane, the eldest of the 10 surviving Harper children, was the first Native woman to graduate from the Alaska Agricultural School and College of Mines (now the University of Alaska), in 1935. Born in 1910 in Rampart, she moved with her family to Nenana during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, because father Sam thought it was safer there. She worked throughout her years at the university, cleaning houses for professors and administrators.
Otto Geist proposed marriage to her just before she graduated, but her mother Louise knew education was the only way her daughter would be saved from the hardships of village life, destitution and too many children. Though not educated herself, Louise was smart, and observant. She saw how white women, better educated, had fewer children and more opportunities for those they had. Two of Sam’s sisters, who stayed in San Francisco when their brothers returned to Tanana and earned teaching degrees, visited their family and told Flora Jane and her sisters of the opportunities that awaited an educated woman.
Flora Jane turned Geist down and attended her graduation, becoming a milestone in history. She took a job teaching in Oklahoma for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but returned soon after when the school in Eklutna was built. She taught in Native schools for many years.
After we’ve met Harper-Haines’ mother and followed her through her life, we meet the numerous aunts and uncles that made up the rest of Flora Jane’s family — Elsie, Arthur, John, Francis, Connie, Weese, Walter, and Mary, and learn their stories, their hardships and accomplishments, and tragedies. Walter, who was with Hudson Stuck when he climbed Mount McKinley, died in the tragedy of the Princess Sophia sinking in 1981, going down in that ship with his new wife and 351 other passengers and crew. Sam died in 1931; Louise lived until 1968, finding a new life with a man who did not cheat on her, and saw her children grow and thrive.
By the time we get to the end, those myriad individual units with messy lives, and even messier interactions, have become familiar. They’ve blended into a family that loves and nurtures one another, revels in successes and mourns tragedies together, and incorporated spouses, children, significant others, and friends into their extended family, just like those long-ago Thanksgivings I remember.
Harper-Haines has an incredible talent for making biography seem more like poetry — her lyrical phrasing and vivid imagery bring the reader right into the story, making us feel we are standing next to Louise as she sees a gravestone and realizes her husband is dead, a fact which shock had erased from her mind, or when Lucy, Louise’s aunt, helps her boyfriend shoot a potential suitor before they run away together.
Louise is steeped in the old ways and stories, and she passes them on to her children, whose children, no longer tied to the Native way of life, variously ignore or forget. Harper-Haines revives those stories as she listens to Flora Jane recount her family history, and weaves them into the narrative, so they become a part of the history, just as they were a part of Louise’s life.
This is a marvelous look at one family, messy and chaotic and loud, that is, in reality, a single unit of interconnected parts that work extremely well together as a whole. I heartily recommend it.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.