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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Shagoon by Victoria Ventris Shea is a sweeping historical novel of life in an Alaskan Tlingit village in the eighteenth century just as the scourge of indigenous people, the colonizers and priests, were first arriving in their lands to change their way of life forever and even destroy their very existence. Twins were considered to be harbingers of evil within Tlingit society and were taken into the forest at birth and left to die. When Ut-kart-ee gives birth to a boy and girl twins they are to be taken immediately to the forest to die but she is determined to hold onto at least one of her babies and although the girl is deposited in the forest, the mother refuses to give up her son. She raises him against the wishes of most in the village and the vehement anger of the village’s Shaman. The baby girl, however, is taken from the forest by one of the villagers and sold to the Spanish priests who are anchored off the village’s harbor. Taken by the priests to a mission in Spanish California and named Ana, the young girl is raised and taught many languages plus how to read and write. When she is fourteen she is tasked, by the priests, to return to her home and spread the word of God and the ways of the church to the people of the frozen north. She is excited to finally have the opportunity to find her place in the world. Ana sets off, with Captain Vancouver, to return to Alaska, via Hawaii. On the way she meets and falls in love with a young Hawaiian man. Ultimately she does return to Alaska and her people but can she truly fit into a society that once considered she shouldn’t even exist?
Shagoon is an exploration of the way of life of an indigenous Alaskan people before the arrival of the Europeans. Victoria Ventris Shea paints a wonderfully complete and beautiful picture of a society that was uncompromising and tough, ruled by superstition and mysticism, yet functioned perfectly well before the arrival of the “civilizing” influence of the Europeans. She does an excellent job of detailing the thoughts and beliefs of the Tlingit people, their social structure, their superstitions, and their successful struggle for survival in the frozen wastes of Alaska. Rather than the civilization and God that the Europeans pretended to bring, their true motivation was to rape the people and their lands, benefitting their rulers with both material and human resources that they cruelly exploited. Worse than this, the indigenous people were exposed to diseases, especially smallpox, against which they had no natural defense. In many ways, diseases were the one gift the Europeans brought which would spell the doom for many indigenous populations.
I particularly enjoyed Ana as a lead character. Torn from her society and forced to live with priests in a world she didn’t understand, she longed for the comfort and security that only a mother can bring. I appreciated the difficulties she experienced when she returned to her people and could not fathom or countenance some of the superstitions built into their legends, as well as the power of the supposedly magical Shaman of the village. This is a powerful tale and one I truly appreciated because it was told through the eyes of the indigenous people, not the colonizers. I can highly recommend this read.