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Graduate student’s novel looks at ‘The Great Death’ in Alaska

By : Eric Coker

The effect of the 1918 world influenza pandemic has not been forgotten. Its devastating effect on Alaska, however, has arguably been lost in time.

“The pandemic wiped out about 60-70 percent of Alaskan natives,” author and Binghamton University doctoral student John Smelcer said. “It decimated the population.”

The disease destroyed cultures and languages, as people left their villages looking for safer areas.

“Once that happens, the languages and cultures they carried with them fizzle out,” said Smelcer, who was raised and schooled in Alaska. “Alaska native languages really took a hit and put them on a downward spiral.”

The influenza outbreak is the backdrop for Smelcer’s second novel, The Great Death, released last month by Henry Holt and Company. The book tells the story of two sisters who leave their remote village in the winter in search of civilization after everyone succumbs to illness. Millie, 13, and younger sister Maura embark on a journey that tests their will and sisterhood.

The Great Death is “loosely based on a true story,” Smelcer said. His grandmother and her sister lived in a village around the late 1910s that was infected by disease. The sisters survived the epidemic and began sharing their memories years later.

“As an adult, they started telling me the stories all the time,” Smelcer said. “Then I would ask elders who lived in other villages: ‘Tell me about that period.’ From all of their stories collectively came The Great Death.

“It’s too big for a poem and it’s too big for a short story,” he added. “It wasn’t ready until I was ready to learn how to write novels.”

Smelcer has written dozens of books that feature poetry, short stories and native Alaskan mythology and language. But he did not write his first novel, The Trap, until 2004. The book, a rescue story set in Alaska, won the prestigious James Jones First Novel Fellowship prize. Soon after, Smelcer won Binghamton University’s Milt Kessler Poetry Book award for Without Reservation. In 2006, Smelcer decided to leave Alaska and attend Binghamton.

“It was a life change,” he said with a laugh. “I was pretty darn tired of pitch black and 60 degrees below zero.”

Smelcer credits professors and authors John Vernon and Jaimee Wriston Colbert with helping him with his novels.

“It’s feedback from beginning to end, editing, suggestions, the whole writing process,” he said.

Professors Gayle Whittier and Albert Tricomi have been key to a novel he is working called Caliban, based on the monster from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

“When I look back in the future, this University will be very instrumental in my writing,” said Smelcer, who plans to establish a scholarship for creative writing students.

Smelcer’s writing in The Great Death has a timeless quality: A reader would be hard-pressed to determine when the book was written. Millie and Maura only talk when necessary, as Smelcer gives readers a feel for rural Alaska by describing the river’s rapids or the wild animals with their eyes on the sisters.

 “I’m very much better with one or two characters that I can become or get into,” he said. “That’s contrary to a lot of teaching in creative writing. Simplicity, cleanness and conciseness are more important to me.”

The Great Death also will appeal to readers of all ages, even though the 166-page book is targeted to young adults.

“I never write anything to be ‘young adult,’” he said. “That’s the marketers. This is a universal story. I just wrote my story and wrote it the best that I could.”

Smelcer compares the situation to the Harry Potter books, which were originally marketed to kids but eventually reached a wide audience.

“Parents started reading it and they told their friends,” he said. “The next thing you know, everyone is reading it.”

Next up for Smelcer is a novel called Islands in the Sea, which he sees as the third part of the Alaska survival trilogy. In the book, a teen-aged boy falls from his father’s fishing boat and is presumed drowned. The boy makes it to an island in Prince William Sound and moves from small island to small island, living off the land. Caliban will follow Islands in the Sea.

Smelcer hopes readers are uplifted by The Great Death.

“The amazing strength and courage of humanity — particularly feminine courage — to survive even the greatest hardships,” he said. “I didn’t write this just for young women or for old women. I just wrote the story. I think they can say, ‘If those (sisters) can go through what they did, I can do anything.’

“That’s a great universal message to everybody.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08