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Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  8,895 ratings  ·  1,396 reviews

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.

Though these women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive

Kindle Edition, 160 pages
Published November 5th 2013 by Harper Perennial (first published 1993)
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Over the course of my reading this year, I have come across a number of books stressing the importance of age being just a number and that just because a person is old, does not make that person weak or enfeebled. The latest book that I have encountered this in is Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis. A mythological tale passed down orally from generation to generation, Wallis has set a tale that her mother told her into print form as she relates how ...more
During a particularly bitter winter, with food supplies quickly being depleted, the Chief of a nomadic Alaskan tribe does the unthinkable: he utters the words, "We are going to have to leave the old ones behind."

And, just like that, two elderly women are left to fend for themselves.

A rush of anger surged within her. How dare they! Her cheeks burned with the humiliation. She and the other old woman were not close to dying! Had they not sewn and tanned for what the people gave them? They did not
Jenny (Reading Envy)
A classic native legend of two old women surviving the cold winter in the tundra region of Alaska. A perfect quick read to kick off my year of reading Alaska and Canada, and book 1 of 2018.
5+++beautiful inspirational stars!

I loved this tale of betrayal and injustice turned into hope, self-discovery, integrity, survival of extreme situation and friendship...Especially because the courageous survivors were two old frail women!

“Now, because we have spent so many years convincing the younger people that we are helpless, they believe that we are no longer of use to this world.”

This is a story before the time of Western culture, a traditional Athabaskan (natives of Alaska) story
Lynne Spreen
Oct 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: midlife
Update: Mom loved it, and I am so grateful that she and I share a love of fiction!


I loved this book. I can't wait to give it to my 89-year-old mother to read. It's such an affirmation of the dignity and wisdom of older age. My review may spoil the story for you so proceed cautiously from here.

Two Old Women is based on an Athabascan Indian legend. A starving tribe of Alaskan natives leaves two old women alone in the freezing cold to die, because every mouthful of food is precious, and
Claire McAlpine
Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village in interior Alaska and grew up in a traditional Athabaskan family. Alaskan Athabaskans are native to Alaska,the original inhabitants of theinterior of Alaska, living a culture of inland creek and river fishing, fabricating what they need from the resources that surround them, living by amatrilinealsystem in which children belong to the mother's clan.

They are believed to have descended from Asians who crossed from eastern Siberia into Alaska
I read Velma Wallis' Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun: An Athabaskan Indian Legend from Alaska many years ago and really enjoyed her translation of oral history to the written word. It was nice to revisit her folk stories in this short novel. My hard copy of the book is the 20th Anniversary edition, published in 2013. Glad to see the publisher re-release the book to a new audience.

The story follows a small band of Athabaskans in a particularly hard winter, who make the choice to leave
Patrick Henry
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Tougher than an Artic Winter

The story of the two vulnerable amid the inhospitable is fascinating survival. The author's style is sparse as the events unfold - there's no lingering before moving on to what is next. The downside is some characters seem shallow. Good story in a brief read.
This is a rather wonderful re-telling of a legend about two women who are abandoned by thier tribe. The book chronicles the women as they find that while surviving is hard, they can do it, and perhaps teach some lessons of thier own.
Apr 11, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked this. The title is so accurate, because this is indeed a book about two old women. They are old, and maybe they don't work as hard around camp as others. So when times get tough for the tribe, the leader leaves them behind for the sake of the tribe as a whole, because these women aren't contributors.

While this is not great literature, I loved the messages. These women realize things about themselves that they have ignored and or didn't want to admit, but now their survival is a task
Sandra Shwayder
Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in Indian legends, wilderness, feminism
Recommended to Sandra by: my daughter
I'm an older woman myself busy exploring the wilderness near the town where my husband and I have retired. My daughter thought I'd love this book about VERY old Athabaskan women who are left behind by their migrating tribe because they would be a burden on the tribe. Instead of going off to die in the wilderness they figure out how to survive on their own. It is an exquisitely detailed retelling of an old legend the author grew up hearing. She has truly honored her elders by writing this ...more
The native people in this legend are one of eleven distinct bands of nomadic tribes which belong to the Athabaskan group in northeastern Alaska. Depending on the weather, these groups follow the sources of food - animals, plants, berries - throughout the year.

This story takes place during an especially frigid winter. The members of the band are facing starvation as their sources of food become more and more limited. It’s easy to feel their desperation as the weather turns colder and colder. The
The message I got from this book is "Don't be a crabby old lady or else no one will want to be around you." Seriously, this is a nice story about the resilience of old people and the grace of forgiveness.
Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis. A story set in Alaska's arctic circle (an area between Fort Yukon and Chalkyitsik) is about two old women of the Gwich'in People. The Gwich'in People are one of eleven distinct Athabaskan groups in Alaska. This is the story of two old women who do nothing while other members of The People have to assist them as they walk with their walking sticks complaining. One hard winter The People are starving and it is ...more
Apr 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Velma Wallis's Two Old Women is a short and simple story: during a famine, a tribal group of Gwich'in, on of the Athabaskan groups in Alaska, abandoned two old women to die. Against all odds, they live.

How did these two old women make it when everyone else was starving? They supported each other and pulled each other through difficult times. Their late night conversations helped them remember previous successes and access long-forgotten strengths and skills. They were even helped by a daughter
Elizabeth (Alaska)
A short, quick read, well worth the few afternoon hours it took me to devour the chronicling of an Alaskan legend.

In the introduction, author Velma Wallis writes:
This story of the two old women is from a time long
before the arrival of the Western culture, and has been handed down from generation to generation, from person to person, to my mother, and then to me.

... This story told me that there is no limit to one's ability - certainly not age - to accomplish in life what one must. Within
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
How must you live your life?

All alone, or with a little help from some friends, you can cling to it no matter what the odds are and if you’re lucky triumph momentarily against death. Then your story will live on as an inspiration and give courage when hope is waning and in that way you would have conquered death. Metaphorically at least.

For who knows if these two old women—abandoned by their nomadic tribe during a famine— were not real life characters who were just lost in legend?
I've become increasingly sick of the Battle Royale iterations a good portion of my television shows have turned into. Kill your darlings if you must in your creative writing classes, but if you think chopping off characters whom the audiences have obviously become attached to is more profound and/or more worthwhile and/or better for ratings, it's more likely that you're lying to yourself and taking the easy way out. In this day and whitewashing age, vacuums are simple to deal with. You plant a ...more
Crystal Starr Light
Bullet Review:

Great story about perseverance and banding together.
Nov 17, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I hit a rough patch at work and a friend suggested that I try this quick read. "Its inspirational" she said, and "can help you keep going". The story is simple, and is indeed inspirational. A retelling of a long told tale about two older woman abandoned by others as they trek across the frozen Artic Circle. Old and complaining, the starving People decide to leave them behind. The women take turns supporting each other and they manage to carve out a life complete with food and warmth that greets ...more
Leslie Reese
Sep 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
During a time when she and her mother were working outdoors side-by-side [in the Fort Yukon community in Alaska] and reflecting upon those ancestors who had been able to sustain a gritty, hard-won physical strength and wisdom up until their deaths - Velma Wallis's mother told her this story, which had been orally handed down from generation to generation. Impressed by the legend's great life lessons, Velma returned to their winter cabin and wrote it down, "using a little of [her] own creative ...more
Terri Broemm
I probably shouldn't admit that I didnt " love this little tale". I read it for a book club, never would have chosen it
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Two old women are part of a migrating Athabaskan Indian tribe during a harsh Arctic winter. The people are starving, and the two old women are abandoned by the group.

But the two women don't just sit down in the snow and die. Instead, they struggle to make their way to an old camp they remember as being flush with animals from the past, and with unexpected resolve and determination, the two women build a shelter from the freezing cold, hunt and store food, and make warm mittens and clothing from
Sep 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009, book-club
This story is delightful. The author wrote with such skill that I felt I sat at her feet, while gazing into the embers of glowing fire while she told the tale of these two brave women. She literally took me to this place in her memory. Ms. Wallis makes a valid point in her introductory of this book that the oral histories of our people and families need to be preserved. She also acknowledges the elders of her tribe and gives them respect in her dedication.

I was reading this book while waiting in
Mary Ronan Drew
The other day at our neighborhood's annual progressive dinner I met a new neighbor who recommended a book, Two Old Women. I tracked it down at once and today I read it. And it's wonderful.

Written by Velma Wallis, who was born on the Arctic Circle in Fort Yukon, Alaska, Two Old Women a story her mother told her when she was a child about the Athabascan people before the influence of European culture.

The People, a nomadic band of Athabascan Indians, are struggling to make it through a particularly
Two Old Women is based on an Alaskan legend. In a time of famine, two old women are abandoned by their people during a brutal winter. Left alone in the woods with minimal supplies, the women must remember skills from their youth in order to survive.

This is a beautiful, well-written re-telling of a native legend. The depiction of the cold winter and utter aloneness the women face abandoned in the Yukon is written masterfully by Wallis. The women grow strong, fueled by their betrayal and
Once young children get their bodies moving, they know few limitations. Their bodies can do things even if their minds say not. Then the body starts this changing, slowing process where the body slows down so much that split-second decisions and re-decisions can be made. Too often it seems easier to let someone else do for our aging selves. Too often it seems easier to complain slightly in order for others to do for us. Too often it seems easier to refuse to do things, giving others the ...more
Finally I visited Alaska, one of my dream literary destinations. The visit was short, but memorable. This is the true story of two Alaskan nomadic elderly women who were left to die by the tribal chieftain after a collective council decision, perhaps as a strategic survival move during the very lean and bitter winter. These women, despite their advanced ages (75 and 80), somehow found their will to live, and utilizing their collective knowledge of 150 odd years, managed to survive for more than ...more
Mar 31, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: f2f-bookgroup, 2015
I can appreciate that this legend would be important for the Athabaskan people but I think it was probably better shared in the oral tradition. For me, in this written form, it seemed overly long, repetitive, strangely flat and simplistic. Simplistic enough that it read as though it was a book intended for the primary grades. I kept imagining it more in its original form as an oral story with the natural cadences and vocal repetitions you would find in that kind of telling and wishing that that ...more
Hákon Gunnarsson
Two Old Woman is retelling of a legend. I have never read, or listened to it told in its original form, so I can't say anything about that, but this is a beautiful novella.

Two old women vs. nature may not sound very exciting, but the story is effective. They have to rely on each other to survive. They are old, so not very physically strong, which means they need to find a way to use all their combined skills to make it.

I've read this book once and listened to an audiobook version once, and
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Velma Wallis (born 1960) is a Gwich'in Athabascan Indian and bestselling U.S. novelist. Her work has been translated into 17 languages.

She was born and raised in a remote Alaskan village near Fort Yukon, approximately 200 km north-east of Fairbanks. This location could be accessed only by riverboat, airplane, snowmobile or dogsled. Velma grew up among twelve siblings. Her father died when she was
“They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” 14 likes
“Now, because we have spent so many years convincing the younger people that we are helpless, they believe that we are no longer of use to this world.” 7 likes
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