Far North Tales: Stories from the Peoples of the Arctic Circle

Article excerpt

Far North Tales: Stories from the Peoples of the Arctic Circle. Translated and retold by Bonnie C. Marshall. Edited by Kira Van Densen. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011.

Bonnie C. Marshall has been traveling to Russia and collecting stories of many kinds for a long time. Her interest in Russia led her to Siberian peoples and their tales, which drew her into exploring the folklore of all peoples of the circumpolar North. The resulting book has more than eighty tales presented in seven thematically defined parts. Many but not all of the stories have notes that include Marshall's sources and other useful background. The "reteller's" introduction provides history and general information on peoples of the North, organized by culture group: Inuit, Yupik, Northwest America, Innu, Saami, and peoples of northern Russia (including Karelians but not Russians). The remarkable thing one comes away with after the introduction is the uniformity of experiences of colonization, suffering, and cultural renewal in the last thirty to forty years.

The stories in Part 1 ("Tales of Daily Life") struck me as a grab bag of silly encounters; 1 found them funny and entertaining. The good stuff really begins in Part 2 ("Creation Stories and Myths"), where Marshall retells some of the great classic myths of the North, including "Sedna" and "Raven Steals the Daylight." The Raven story is credited as Inuit and Dene, but the notes point the reader to other versions among many cultures of the North American Northwest Coast. Part 3 ("Tricksters and Fools") naturally includes several Raven tales, including those from Koryaks and Chukchi in northeast Asia and those from the American Northwest. Part 4 ("Legends and Pourquoi Tales") contains many stories that one could classify as origin stories, but perhaps Marshall considers the origin of mosquitoes (from a cannibal monster, one of my favorites from Part 4) of a lesser order than the origin of caribou or how the sun got into the sky.

Part 5 ("Stories About Animals and Marriages with Animals") presents some of the most gripping stories because adventure is combined with intimate relationships. "The Woman Who Adopted a Polar Bear" cannot but end sadly, as bears and people are fundamentally in conflict. The story about two girls who are abducted by Eagle and Whale and the one about a man marrying a seagull are also gripping adventures where the reader cannot be confident of the end until it happens.

I found it difficult to clearly demarcate the last two parts: "Spirits, Shamans, and Shapeshifters" (Part 6) and "Heroes and Heroines" (Part 7). These two could have been combined with the tricksters section even, because the Trickster or Transformer is a standard category in Native American folklore. These stories are great adventures, often of vengeance, and feature various kinds of shamanic combat.

Although 1 found many of the stories enjoyable to read, the further 1 read, the more disturbed 1 became. As a child, my first serious interest in Native American cultures came through reading Indian stories. They were intriguing puzzles, presented unadorned with details and full of action but rarely explaining motives for why coyote killed that one or ate another, for example. …