Friday, April 16, 2010

The Great Death


The Great Death
by John Smelcer
Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 166 pp. Juvenile Fiction.

"At the beginning of the twentieth century, fully two thirds of all Alaska Natives perished from a pandemic of measles, smallpox, and influenza. No community was spared."

This is from the prologue of The Great Death by John Smelcer. The fictional story he tells in this book is about two young survivors of a small Inuit village in 1917 which is literally wiped out from disease. While not named in the book, I assumed the disease was measles from the description. Millie,thirteen, and her sister, Maura, ten, are fascinated when white skinned strangers come to their village. They arrive with a native from downriver who translates for them. He is also covered in red spots and appears very ill. Soon after the strangers and their interpreter leave, people in the village become sick, very sick with red spots covering their entire bodies. In a matter of days, everyone dies. Everyone except Millie and Maura. They must decide what to do, where to go, and how to survive. They must be brave, smart, careful, and take care of each other.

Not deep in detail, but filled with many good wilderness survival tidbits, The Great Death is a fast, interesting read. Millie and Maura's story is inspiring and engaging. It is made all the more fascinating by the fact that this kind of event, whole villages being killed off by new diseases brought by white explorers, really happened. It's certainly an intriguing part of American history. A great historical fiction read for 3rd grade and up.