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BOOK REVIEW : A Woman's Tale of Long Ago : MOTHER EARTH, FATHER SKY by Sue Harrison Doubleday $19.95; 356 pages

July 30, 1990|CAROLYN SEE

In her acknowledgements to this novel, Sue Harrison thanks her agent and her publisher: "Without them 'Mother Earth, Father Sky' would still be stuck in a desk drawer, a small embarrassment to the author, a book that was rejected numerous times by many people."

One small gotcha for all the people who turned her down, because this first novel, nine years in the writing, now has a 100,000 first printing and promotion to match. It's a Literary Guild Main Selection, and gets its own "spectacular eight-copy floor display," and--get this!--it's a very readable and interesting book.

The novel is set 9,000 years ago, in the Aleutian Islands. But this whole scene is far less like a Jean Auel epic than something by Laura Ingalls Wilder--"Little House in the Big Woods," or one of the later stories, where Laura meets Almanzo, her future husband.

The questions in "Mother Earth, Father Sky" are incredibly basic ones: How did people get along then and what was it like to be a woman, living an unrecorded life?

The narrative is definitely a woman's book, even though it has a rip-roaring battle at the end. Following the aesthetic rules of the Icelandic Saga, the point of view never soars. It stays right on the ground, right in the middle of these tiny Aleutian villages.

Most of the action is seen through the eyes of a plucky female, Chagak, who, in the first few weeks after she "becomes a woman," is witness to the grisly slaughter of all her extended family by an enemy tribe. Chagak escapes, with only her dying younger brother, taking off in a boat to find the northern community of her maternal grandfather.

Now, so far, what's the big deal? Haven't we all seen at some time or other Victor Mature in the late-night movies, prancing around in a fur skirt as a representative of the Rock People courting a girl from the Shell People in an old black-and-white classic in which the respective virtues of wimpiness/good-manners versus violence/strength are debated, and Victor the Rock gets married to that nice Shell girl and that was the beginning of civilization as we all know it?

Yes, we probably did see that movie. But the beginning of civilization is still a great story.

After about four pages of getting used to kayaks being called ikyaks , and characters named either Aleut monikers like Angigh, or more on-the-nose names like Man-Who-Kills or Seal Stalker, you forget all that and begin to worry yourself sick about whether Chagak is going to live or die.

When the young girl finds an ancient artist-hermit to live with, you rejoice. When Man-Who-Kills invades their home, you begin to see how fragile life was and is; how close to death all of us are, all of the time.

Again, this is a woman's book in two ways. First, no matter how rip-roaring the action, when a whale washes up on the beach, everything stops so that the characters, step by step, can flense that whale (just as in the "Little House" books, when Ma wanted to smoke a ham, all action stopped until that ham was smoked).

Chagak ends up with some babies, and even with prehistoric sociopaths wandering about everywhere, action stops again, when those babies' sealskin diapers get changed, and their bottoms dusted with fine ash from the campfires . . . .

Second, Sue Harrison takes the position that, as far back as 9,000 years ago, there were right guys and wrong guys, and that women even then could tell the difference.

There are two prehistoric sleazoids in this narrative. Man-Who-Kills is a straightforward, wife-beating killer, but another man is even worse. Grey Bird is a wife-beating coward, who can't make it in the world of men and bullies women because he's unfit to do anything else.

But there are good men as well, two of them, actually. And the subtext of "Mother Earth, Father Sky" is that probably 9,000 years ago, women were judging men and defining them, even though the men weren't paying attention, and so officially, those opinions didn't exist.

Next: Susan Isaacs reviews Scott Spencer, "Secret Anniversaries" (Alfred A. Knopf).

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