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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Aleutian Sparrow

Hesse, Karen. 2003. ALEUTIAN SPARROW. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. ISBN 0689861893.

Karen Hesse weaves chapters of a common story together through her poetic retelling of the Aleutian refugee experiences of 1942-45. Presented in chronological order, each poem recounts a different experience and emotion from the perspective of a young Aleutian girl maturing into a woman as everything familiar and comforting is torn away. Hesse’s sparse verses paint strong pictures for the reader—of struggle, of intolerance, sickness and loss… and yet also of hope. Many islanders do survive their relocation from grass and sea to forest and city, and are able to return to their homes—what is left of them—after the war. The old ways are remembered by many, and a few pieces of the old life do survive the American occupation of the islands. Although Vera, the protagonist, loses her family to sickness and the draw of city life, and her best friend to TB, she gains in self-reliance, and finds new family to start over with upon her return to the Aleutian Islands.

The Aleutian experience is particularly well-suited to the poetic medium, as many of the songs and stories that sustain these resourceful people are allusions to the lives these resourceful people lead on the islands.

One poem recounts a legend in which the Russians, and not the Japanese, invaded the islands. At that time there was one ancient tree growing on the islands, and the Aleutian Sparrows lived in it and danced around it on the wind. When the Russians came, they cut down the tree, and built all their homes from it—and they all lived short lives and died mysterious deaths—but the sparrow still dances in the wind. The astute reader will recognize that the metaphorical meaning of the story is that the Aleutian people will continue to dance and sing, no matter what is taken from them.

As the story progresses, the reader knows only what Vera herself is aware of—so the reader is able to learn the hard lessons of struggle, of loss, and of the scars war leaves on the land with Vera herself. It is a sad story, with few friendly outsiders to help them, and fewer resources to work with—yet part of this story’s strength is that there is no bitterness, but only sadness and aching for times past, on the part of the heroine. Hesse does a great job of illustrating the many challenges—from racism to dealing with unfamiliar weather and unfamiliar terrain—that are a part of the refugee experience.

Hesse also chooses not to discuss emotions directly, but rather to show them by her choice of words, and by the experiences as they are lived by the protagonist, Vera. Some poems show a moment in time—Vera’s first experience with the Northern Lights—others show a moment that the reader infers must be part of a broader pattern of experience—the Aleuts who turn to drink to numb their pain, or the way a sick baby is cared for by the whole community, and sung to sleep once it has died.

School Library Journal: “Hesse's verses are short and flow seamlessly, one into another. Her use of similes is a powerful tool in describing people, scenes, events, and emotions.”
The Horn Book: “The sparseness of the verse seems to have limited the amount of background information the author was able to impart--of crucial importance when tackling a subject so unfamiliar to most readers.”

==> Discuss what makes these non-rhyming verses poetic. What is gained by the use of this medium?
==> Encourage readers to find other books about refugee experiences in America, or another country, and discuss how the style of writing changes the impact of the story.

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