People of the Whale by Linda Hogan portrays the lives of the A’atsika Nation in a Native American village on the Pacific coast. Hogan integrates Native American mythology and folklore with the daily lives of the A’atsika people to form an intricate web illustrating the importance of wholeness and interconnectedness with all creatures whether on land, sea, or sky.
The central characters are Ruth and Thomas, a married couple who have been sweethearts since childhood. Ruth and Thomas have in common auspicious beginnings. Born with gills that have to be removed surgically, Ruth’s affinity with the sea is marked from birth. Thomas’ birth coincides with a large octopus emerging from the sea to take up temporary habitation in a dark cave. The villagers shower the octopus with gifts, perceiving it as a sacred being. Thomas’ mother acknowledges her son’s intimate connection with the octopus. She carries her infant to the mouth of the cave every evening as a form of dedication to the octopus, seeking its protection for her son.
Ruth and Thomas lead simple, idyllic lives until Thomas enlists to join the military and is shipped off to Vietnam. Their paths diverge for many years. Ruth remains in the village, giving birth to their son, Marco, and raising him as a single mother. She instills in him the values and culture of his people. Thomas, meanwhile, exposed to the horrors and atrocities perpetrated by all sides in Vietnam, has become a fractured human being. He takes up residence in one of the Vietnamese villages, is embraced by the locals, marries, and has a child. After his wife dies by walking into a mine field, Thomas is picked up by American troops and returned to America.
Hogan skillfully weaves the separate lives of Ruth and Thomas until Thomas returns to his native village many years later. But Thomas is now a changed man, tortured by images of carnage and haunted with nightmares. His flashbacks are scattered and disjointed, and it is not until the end of the novel that a complete picture emerges of his experience in Vietnam.
Hogan’s language is lyrical, her sentences rhythmic, her pace unhurried. She moves backwards and forwards in time and place, picking up a thread here, dropping it there, replicating the ebb and flow of the ocean that permeates every aspect of the villagers’ lives. She draws parallels between the Vietnamese villagers struggling to eke a living with those of the Native American villagers struggling to do the same under a different set of circumstances. She blurs the lines between the spiritual and physical realms. Her characters are richly drawn and believable, with Ruth emerging as the indomitable moral center fighting to retain traditional values with their concomitant respect for the natural environment against the onslaught of greed and exploitation of that same environment.
With sensitivity, compassion, and insight into Native American culture, Linda Hogan explores the issues of loyalty to family and tribe; adherence to traditional values; the quest for wholeness; the wisdom of the elders; respect for the natural environment; the survival of the human spirit against seemingly insurmountable odds; the restoration of balance; and the spiritual and physical interconnectivity of all forms of life.
This is a beautiful story, beautifully told, illustrating the fragility and delicacy of all life.