Book review: King of the Yukon

Kings of the Yukon – An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth
Published by Penguin’s Particular Books, RRP £16.99 (hardback)

This surprisingly good book (surprising to me because it’s so far out of my ‘reading comfort zone’) has recently won the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. My interest in Alaska to date has been based solely on the impressions of one of my favourite films, Leaving Normal, starring a young Christine Lahti, so I had plenty to learn as I set out on my armchair travels with Adam.

This not a book for the fainthearted – the stories he gathers of the enforced removal of First Nation children to boarding schools miles from home where their native traits, language and traditions would be wiped out is no less heartbreaking because we’ve heard it all before in so many areas of the world. You only have to put yourself into a parent’s shoes (let alone the child’s) for a moment to realise how unimaginable the pain of separation must have been. As a grandmother now, I found this human tragedy all the more heartbreaking.

What makes the book stand out is how the story of the forced migration; the hardship faced by the people trying to eke out a living in the face of natural, political and social opposition, is tied so deftly and in such beautiful writing to the plight of the salmon whose home is the river and its fishers. Trying to ensure the sustainability of traditional fishing methods for future generations is a huge challenge now for the Alaskans (how blithely I’ve read the words ‘Alaskan salmon’ on my cello-wrapped fish in the supermarket) and one in which the young people are just beginning to show an interest. The salmon too – their life-cycle so harsh, so interfered with, so nearly impossible to survive: you can’t help but compare them with the lives of the people who are trying to survive too.

I’m so glad winning this award brought this young writer to our notice – I would never have read this book otherwise.

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