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The Great Death

3.46  ·  Rating Details  ·  199 Ratings  ·  64 Reviews
The Great Death arrived with the man from downriver, the one who came with the light-colored strangers and had little red spots covering his body. Thirteen-year-old Millie and her younger sister, Maura, are fascinated by the guests, but soon sickness takes over their village and they have little time to think of anything else. As they watch the people they know and love di ...more
Audio CD, Unabridged, 0 pages
Published December 23rd 2009 by Listening Library / Books on Tape (first published October 8th 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Mar 08, 2010 Kristen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-school
Interesting historical fiction. "At the beginning of the twentieth century, full two thirds of all Alaskan Natives perished from a pandemic of measles, smallpox, and influenza." Millie and Maura are two sisters, the only survivors of the Great Death from their village. This is the story of their journey. Good plot, and great setting, but the narrator kept "interrupting" with information that was good to know, but worded in such an outsider-instructional way that it pulled me out of the story:
Nov 08, 2009 Deanna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Historical fiction, plague, family, survival, Native Alaskan culture.

Since I am just getting over the H1N1 flu this book was an interesting read. Boy am I thankful for Advil, vitamins, gas furnace, bountiful pantry, etc.

This book follows 2 sisters as they travel a river to find other people who might be alive. White people brought a plague to their Alaskan village and everyone died except them. During the journey they are attacked by wolves, meet up with a hairy woodsman who drinks too much, fi
Dec 08, 2009 Phoebe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Two Alaskan girls, aged 13 and 10, are the only survivors when their village is hit by a plague brought by white people. What they endure is horrendous, aside from their shock and grief. Tragic, yet a marvelous survival story. I have to add, the writing in this short book is incredible. There are haunting turns of phrase throughout. An historical note at the front of the book indicates that Alaskan natives still refer to the start of the 20th century as the Great Death, when two-thirds of native ...more
Jan 13, 2010 Kathleen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For such a small book, this story really packs an emotional punch.

According to Mr. Smelcer, "...nearly 2/3 of all Alaska natives perished from a pandemic of measles, small-pox and influenza" which became his inspiration for this story.

Set in the early 1900's, Millie and Maura's remote Alaskan village is wiped out by an epidemic of small-pox. Millie and Maura are the sole survivors and decide that staying in their village will mean certain death. So they set off to see if they can life in any of
This was a nice, short book about two girls who are the only survivors in their village. A disease has been brought to their village in Alaska by European settlers and it wipes out everybody they know. The girls decide to travel to the next village for help and the book documents their travels. It was interesting and easy to read and the girls were both very strong and likeable. I think it would have been better if the book followed them further than it did instead of just leaving it to our inma ...more
Juneau Public Library

Two young sisters are the only survivors after a mysterious illness kills the rest of their village. Together they set off through a treacherous land in search of other survivors. Is this the latest post-apocalyptic speculative fiction? Unfortunately, no. The Great Death is set in Alaska in early 1900s when a worldwide pandemic killed an estimated sixty to seventy percent of the Alaska Native population. The characters are inspired by the life of the author’s grandmother and great-aunt. Despite
Aug 06, 2014 Molly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The cover of this book makes a point of saying that its target audience is kids in 6th to 9th grades, but I really enjoyed the storytelling in this odyssey about two young girls who are the lone survivors of an epidemic that kills everyone else in their remote Alaska village in 1917. I think of it more as a short story or novella that should appeal to readers of all ages, although some of the elements (death, rape, etc) might be a little much for younger audiences to handle. I borrowed the audio ...more
When smallpox kills all but two young girls in a remote Alaskan village, Maura and Millie set out to reach the settlement often mentioned by their elders. As the bitter winter descends, the two girls struggle with challenge after challenge along their journey, from losing their canoe to hunting down food. Their native traditions and skills enable their basic survival but their dogged determination to keep on despite a seemingly abandoned world is the story's suspense and heart. This novel is suc ...more
Dec 04, 2009 Megan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009
Not enough story to hold together, not enough historical or cultural content to hold my interest anyway.
Mrs. Hassig
Jan 23, 2016 Mrs. Hassig rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a total heartbreaker. Two little sisters are the only ones to survive in their village in Alaska when the white man comes to take photos of them in their native dress and standing next to their homes. You'd think the native traveling with him and coughing up blood would have given everyone a clue that there is a problem but NOOOOOOO! The saddest part of this story is that it is historical fiction. The "Great Death"did happen to thousands of Native Americans. The harrowing travels of ...more
Lisa Nocita
Thirteen year old Millie is responsible for looking after her younger sister Maura. Whenever Maura lingers or gets into mischief, Millie is held responsible. She considers Maura a real pest. But when small pox destroys their entire remote Alaskan village save Millie and Maura, both girls realize they will have to put aside their childish concerns to bear the sadness and brutal winter ahead. Millie is determined to find a settlement downriver. They simply can't stay in their village alone for the ...more
Dec 21, 2014 Charli rated it liked it
SLJ review:

Grade 6–9—John Smelcer returns to the Alaskan wilderness he mined for The Trap (2006) with this short, historical tale (2009, both Holt) about two Native Alaskan sisters orphaned by an epidemic. When white men visit their small village, everyone becomes ill and dies, leaving 13-year-old Millie and 10-year-old Maura as the only survivors. With winter fast approaching, they decide to travel downstream in search of other people. Accompanied by two loyal village dogs, they make their way
This is a short tale, so I've read it today. It doesn't make it clear on the cover, but I think this is a kid's book - if it's not then it certainly should be aimed at that age group. As an adult book it is very average.

Set in Alaska at some point in history... it's a bit vague, but European settlers are very much settled and the indiginous population are trading with them. The great death is smallpox (or something similiar) that is spread through the local communities who have no natural resist
JoAnn B.
May 28, 2010 JoAnn B. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-school
Two sisters are the only people in this native Alskan village who do not die from a sickness brought by the first white men to ever visit. With winter coming on, they realize that they cannot stay there by themselves and so travel by canoe and on foot to reach a town that they have only heard about. This is a good survival story and could be paired with Ice Drift by Theodore Taylor. The native Alaskan way of life around 1900 is well portrayed both in the opening chapters describing the village a ...more
Judy Desetti
Jun 21, 2011 Judy Desetti rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Judy by: WAW
Historical Fiction. An extremely fast read. Only 166

Great Death was the near decimation of the Alaskan natives at the turn of the 20th century due to contact with white people. According to the author nearly 2/3 of the Alaskan Natives were killed by measles, flu, and small pox.

Two sisters are the only survivors left in their remote village. They travel down the river to find other survivors. Short on details and not much action. Not sure students will be able to grasp the full impact of the int
This story takes place in a remote village in Alaska in 1917. Two white men and their guide visit the village to photograph the people and the guide is covered with red spots from head to toe. After they leave, everyone in the village falls ill and dies except for two sisters, Maura and Millie, ages 13 and 10. The sisters must travel down river in the winter to find others who survived the epidemic. Along the way they encounter some life threatening obstacles, which they overcome with courage an ...more
Alainee Calo
May 01, 2015 Alainee Calo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars. Loved the writing style. Didn't like the ending. I wanted to know more about what would happen to them. I think it would been better if he added a phrase about the girls being naive or something to the dangers of the white men.... Like they think they were reaching salvation, but it turned out to be not what they expected.
A great little historical fiction about a part of history I had never really heard about but no appropriate for my readers.

Spoiler: one of the girls has to escape a guy trying to take advantage of her.
Koster, L.
This is a small (166 page) story with a big impact. The description of the bucolic life of the two sisters (13 and 8 years old) in their native village in Alaska is charming, but this life-style is soon to come to a violent end. It is the Winter of 1917 and the two of them will be the only survivors of their village after smallpox is introduced by the Europeans who have visited. The plague is decimating the Native population across the land, and the two girls must set out all alone to find out i ...more
I liked that this book covered little known history, especially that of native peoples. But I feel like the book needed more of an ending. I also have mixed feelings about the author summarizing the plot in the intro (that the two girls will be left alone, but will survive, after a plague wipes out their entire village). I guess this gives younger readers advance notice of grim subject matter, but the graphic descriptions of the dead and a near rape scene make this questionable as a book for gra ...more
This story of two native Alaskan sisters who watch their entire village die from a smallpox epidemic spread by Europeans in the early 1900's is based on fact. The girls travel by canoe and by foot for many miles through the dead of winter in an effort to find another village where people are alive. Along the way they must deal with numerous obstacles and dangers, some quite gruesome. The book felt very plot-driven to me; I didn't feel that I got to know the characters well enough. The writing st ...more
Oct 20, 2012 Susan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ya, primary, fiction
This book fairly accurately depicted how devastating disease was brought by the white man to Alaskan native villages. The disease would wipe out entire villages, and due to their remoteness it wouldn't be known for a long period of time. In this novel, two young sisters survived from their village and using their native training, started a long trip to other villages or civilization. It depicted the hardship the met with snow, raging rivers, a perverted trapper, wild animals, and more. While the ...more
Catherine  Mustread
Aug 20, 2010 Catherine Mustread rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Catherine by: Peoria Library
Plague ravishes a small Alaska Ahtna village in the early 1900s and only two girls survive -- they head downstream on a survival road-trip, hoping to find other people still alive somewhere. I liked that this is based on a true story and how the interdependence of the girls saves and motivates them. Also appreciated that the macabre nature of the devastating horrors faced are muted rather than graphically depicted. The inclusion of fragments of Raven tales at the beginning of each chapter tied i ...more
Trisha Carlson
a good historical fiction read, perhaps for the middle school level with non-fiction texts to accompany it
Mar 02, 2015 Ann rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Why did those little girls escape the plague? Rather how? Good story though.
Dec 02, 2010 Robyn rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: young-adult
Two Alaskan Native American sisters are thrown into the wild after their village is devastated by a plague of (I'm assuming) measles. I felt the story was too short and underdeveloped to warrant any emotional investment. I did like the side story that began each chapter. It is an Alaskan folk tale about Raven and the mischief he causes. This was supposed to correlate to girls' story, but it felt forced. I'm curious if "The Trap", also by John Smelcer, is better since it was best book for young a ...more
Abigail Bowman
Jul 11, 2015 Abigail Bowman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Historically fascinating, plus a fast read.
Oct 27, 2011 Heather rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-ya
Prepare yourself for a sad book if you are going to read/listen to this one! But it was incredibly interesting to me because of its historical context. What tragedy the Native Alaskans went through! Besides the history lesson, I also liked the book because of the characters of the sisters. They really learn to rely upon each other and grow so strong! The main disappointment for me was the ending. After all that I had been through with these sisters, I wanted to see how the next stage of their li ...more
Dec 28, 2012 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating topic -- the smallpox epidemic that hit Alaska Native villages -- and the story of two young sisters who are the only survivors from their village. They travel down river to find other people and safety. The girls see lots of death and face many challenges on their journey, growing in confidence and skills along the way. The author did a good job of translating the horrific experience of these children into a story that other young readers can understand and also learn some history i ...more
Jan 10, 2014 Mindy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
I really enjoyed reading this book. It's a short & easy read, but well written and very interesting. It's about two young Eskimo sisters living in Alaska, about 20 years after the Klondike gold rush. During this time, there was a huge outbreak of smallpox/influenza (introduced by the "White Men") among the native Eskimos that, according to the author, killed about 2/3 of the total population. This book personalizes that tragedy through the survival story of the two young sisters.
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John E. Smelcer is the poetry editor of Rosebud magazine and the author of more than forty books. He is an Alaskan Native of the Ahtna tribe, and is now the last tribal member who reads and writes in Ahtna.

His forthcoming novel, LONE WOLVES is being partially funded via an Indiegogo campaign. Check out this video and the unusual gifts offered. Among them, you can choose an autographed, numbered, l
More about John E. Smelcer...

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