The Great Death


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. As they watch the people they know and love die, the sisters remain unaffected and begin to realize that they will have to find a new home.

Alone in the cold Alaskan winter of 1917, struggling to overcome ...

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The Great Death

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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. As they watch the people they know and love die, the sisters remain unaffected and begin to realize that they will have to find a new home.

Alone in the cold Alaskan winter of 1917, struggling to overcome the obstacles nature throws their way, the girls discover that their true strength lies in their love for each other.

John Smelcer’s spare and beautiful prose shapes the sisters’ story with tenderness and skill, presenting a powerful tale of determination, survival, and family.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A gripping and poignant survival story, made even more so because of its basis on historical fact. … Smelcer’s prose is clean yet rich; original yet unpretentious, and he provides more than enough detail to satisfy diehard survival-story junkies.”—Horn Book Review, Starred Review

“This grim tale of the sisters’ struggle against the elements will leave readers wanting to know more about this little-known time in history.”—Booklist

“An engaging tale of survival.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A classic survival story.”—BCCB

Children's Literature - Sharon Salluzzo
It was autumn when the white men and their guide, who looked like he had a "hundred mosquito bites," came to a remote Alaskan village to photograph the indigenous people. Several days after they left, the people of the village began to develop the red spots. It soon became apparent that these were not mosquito bites. All but two sisters died from the disease brought to their village. In order to survive, thirteen-year-old Millie and her ten-year-old sister Maura begin a journey downriver to find a new village in which to live. Their harrowing adventure involves confrontations with bears, wolves, and a drunken white man as well as battling hypothermia. This compelling survival story is full of grit. There are vivid descriptions of the dead. Millie and Maura must kill and butcher animals in order to survive. Smelcer employs a tale of Raven, thus tying in the culture of the people. Each chapter begins with a paragraph that continues the legend and foreshadows the events of that chapter. The girls' journey is both physical and emotional. Smelcer does a fabulous job of showing how Millie and Maura grow from Millie watching out for her sister to the two of them becoming interdependent. The girls' thoughts often return to their parents and life in their village, symbolic of the end of their culture as they journey to their new life in the white man's village. Smelcer's writing conjures up the sights and smells of this quiet world through which the girls travel. Smelcer has created a haunting, literary novel based on an historical incident which had a profound effect on the indigenous people of Alaska and their culture. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo
School Library Journal
Gr 6–9—Smelcer draws on the early-20th-century history of his native Alaskan ancestors for this story based on the tragic effects of the white man's diseases on people who had neither natural immunity nor medicines to fight them. Two sisters, Millie and Maura, ages 13 and 10, are the sole survivors of such an epidemic in their village. Knowing that they cannot manage on their own, they strike off downriver in hopes of finding people who are still alive. The author vividly describes the progression of the disease on the afflicted, the inability of those who were still alive, but infected, to dispose of the dead properly, and the gruesome results. The sisters' flight is hampered by severe winter weather, a lecherous settler, and hungry wolves, which add to the tension in the story. The novel is part history and part survival guide. It also graphically illustrates the effects of a plague on isolated peoples. Readers come to know the sisters' strengths and weaknesses in the first few chapters. Both girls could best be described as stoic for they know that although they are mourning the loss of their parents, friends, and relatives, they must press on until they find other survivors. The cover art, a photograph of mukluks, does little to attract readers; librarians will need to booktalk this one.—Nancy P. Reeder, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, Columbia, SC
Kirkus Reviews
All of the world is dying. The dead lie everywhere, the dying consigned to brushing away flies and awaiting their own time. Dogs feast upon corpses, magpies and ravens pick at them and bears are getting bold. But 13-year-old Millie and her ten-year-old sister Maura are spared by the disease left by the mysterious white strangers. With a prose style by turns informative, poetic and graphic, Smelcer tells of the sisters' journey away from their Alaskan village, a story of strength and courage as they face dangerous waters, wolves, moose, blizzards and a hairy-faced giant. The prologue describes the pandemic of measles, smallpox and influenza that killed two-thirds of all Alaska Natives at the beginning of the 20th century. Parallel and sometimes intersecting is the tale of Raven, the trickster who comes to help people in need, but no backmatter is offered to provide the cultural context of the traditional story. Otherwise, an engaging tale of survival. (Historical fiction. 11 & up)
School Library Journal
Gr 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 through the forest and encounter many treacherous obstacles. Although the situation is grim, the sisters' hopeful attitude and determination to survive make this an exciting listen. A bit predictable in parts, the simple, lyrical language enhances the stark beauty of the winter setting. Narrator Lorna Raver doesn't differentiate much between the sisters' voices, but her cadence and delivery are perfectly paced for the story. Smelcer doesn't fare as well with his chapter headings, which sound as if they were recorded in an echo chamber and are distracting. An introduction, also read by the author, rounds out the recording. The authentic details of survival in the winter wilderness are fascinating and should draw in reluctant readers.—Charli Osborne, Oxford Public Library, Oxford, MI
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805081008
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 987,176
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 940L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

JOHN SMELCER is the author of many nonfiction and poetry books for adults, as well as a young adult novel, The Trap. Mr. Smelcer has been a visiting professor at various universities around the world and is the associate publisher and poetry editor of the literary magazine Rosebud.

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Read an Excerpt



In Yani’da’a, the long-ago time, Raven was flying around looking for something to eat. He was very hungry as usual. Once, he had even been hungry the day after he finished eating a whale.

SOME STORIES ARE TOO BIG to be told all at once, even if they seem small. Largeness of story has nothing to do with the length of each word or of each sentence or with the number of pages, but with the capacity of the heart, which can take only so much.

This is such a story.

It begins in a little-known corner of Alaska less than two decades after the end of the Klondike Gold Rush, one of America’s last great adventures. Back then, there stood a small village at the northern edge of a great lake surrounded on the south side by mountains and fed by a glacier. A fast-running river flows from the far eastern side of the lake. Indeed, the name for the river in the local indigenous language, Tazlina, means “swift river.”

Don’t bother to look for the village on a map; you won’t find it.

The People had lived in this country forever, not forever in the sense that a farming family that has lived on the same farm for generations would use the word, but so long as to give depth and width and the smell of age to the word.

More than two dozen families dwelled in small log houses at the edge of the lake. They weren’t very tall houses, for they were built partially into the ground, which had the benefit of cooling them in summer and warming them in winter. The roofs were covered with sod, the heavy soil insulating the homes. They were abloom with weeds and wildflowers. And every green roof was adorned with weathered, gray caribou and moose antlers—some very large, for game was plentiful in those days.

Smoke from cooking fires rose and drifted through the village, helping to drive away mosquitoes, the plague of summertime, from which there was no true escape. Racks made of willow were laden with strips of red salmon hanging to dry in the sun and wind. Little houses on tall legs stood back in the forest of black spruce. These caches, accessible only by ladder, stored dried fish and meat out of the reach of animals.

Canoes were pulled up on the gravel beach. At the western edge of the village, a thin footbridge made of a fallen timber spanned a clear stream, which was full of bright red salmon. Dogs ran about barking and sniffing and searching for something to eat. Children helped their families—sons helping fathers and uncles, daughters helping mothers and aunts—or they chased the dogs along the beach or skipped rocks on the water.

In such a small village, everyone was somehow related. But on such a harsh land the amity of other villages was important. In time of famine, when the great herds of caribou did not come into the country during winter, that sense of wider community could mean the difference between life and death. Sharing in time of need is paramount in the north, where snow and quiet and darkness rule the land for half a year at a time. It is one of the most essential laws.

It was in this village that the story begins.

But it does not end there.

Several spear-holding men were standing knee-deep in the stream as it widened and shallowed, emptying into the lake. The bottom of the creek was sand and pebbles, where salmon congregated and readied themselves for their final push upstream, up to the headwater that would welcome their spawn—life arising from death as day arises from night; such is the cycle of existence.

The men stabbed salmon with the long, barbed spears, flinging them ashore to their wives, who deftly cut them open and tossed the innards back into the water so that the spirits of the salmon could return to the sea. It was important that the People respect the salmon, which they depended on to outlast the long, desolate winters. If the salmon spirits thought they had been disrespected, they might not return in the future.

Two eagles watched everything from the treetops. Seagulls hovered and mewed above the women, diving and fighting one another for whatever was flung into the moving water, and far out on the lake, ducks floated on the shimmering blue-gray surface. Even farther, on the distant horizon, the white glacier crept in the distance.

Upstream from the men was the little footbridge, and upstream of that stood two young girls, sisters—the older and taller on the right bank, the younger girl perched precariously on a large rock midstream, several other large rocks protruding from the water behind her.

“Jump!” shouted Millie from the bank. “You can make it!”

“But I can’t!” Maura shouted above the din of the rushing water. “I’ll fall in!”

Maura had jumped from one rock to another, but now the distance to shore seemed too great.

“You’re always afraid of everything!” shouted Millie. She was impatient because her mother had asked her to fetch her younger sister. Mother would be angry at her for taking so long, even though it was Maura’s fault they were late. She had stood on the boulder for a long time, too frightened to leap. But that wouldn’t matter. Millie was older; it was she who would be blamed.

“I am not,” replied Maura quietly, barely audible above the rushing water, almost losing her footing on the slippery rock.

But it was true. Maura wouldn’t even go to the outhouse alone after dark. She always made her sister go with her, and she always sang a little song while inside, her heels nervously tapping against the boards.

Running past Millie, a lean dog chased a squirrel up a tree and then peered eagerly into the limbs, barking at the chattering escapee. It wasn’t their dog. Dozens of dogs roamed the village.

“Hurry up and jump!” Millie shouted. “Mother said to come home!”

“I can’t. I’ll fall in,” replied Maura, almost in tears, thinking of the swift, icy water.

Millie reached out her hand. “Grab hold when you jump! I’ll catch you!”

Maura crouched, not nearly low enough, and jumped, landing in water up to her waist. Salmon darted from beneath and about her, splashing every which way up and down the stream, the way they do when wading bears try to pounce on them. Maura stood only a step from shore crying, the ends of her long black hair floating around her.

Millie leaned forward and helped her little sister out of the stream. “You’re too frightened. You really must grow up.” Her tone was stern, in a motherly sort of way, though she was only three years older. Millie even looked like their mother. Maura took after their father.

Maura stopped crying as she walked behind Millie on the narrow trail to their house, her dress dripping. Mosquitoes buzzed about them; the squirrel-chasing dog followed on their heels, stopping often to mark bushes and trees.

“But I’m only ten,” she said quietly, feeling a little ashamed of herself.

“At your age, I was swimming in the lake,” Millie said over her shoulder. “You’re too afraid even to wade in the stream.”

Maura didn’t say anything for several steps but finally managed, “I can’t help it if I’m small.”

As she walked, Maura stretched her stride to match the prints left by her sister’s moccasins on the sandy trail.

Millie stopped and turned to Maura. “The badger is small, but even the mighty bear fears him.”

Neither of the girls said a word after that. The mosquitoes continued to buzz, and the dog ran off after another squirrel.

When they entered their small house, their mother was cooking fish-egg soup over an open fire, adding wild potatoes to the black cast-iron pot. The inside of the house was smoke-filled and crowded, consisting of a single room with two beds mounted along the hewn-log walls. A small table stood under the only window in the cabin. Now, at midday, the table was bare, except for an unlit candle and a box of matches. Two rickety chairs flanked the table’s end, though it served a family of four.

No art adorned the walls, no pictures of any kind, no photographs. There were no books, no fine china, no dolls or other playthings of any sort, no cupboards or toilets or closets. The floor was earthen but clean-swept. A lever-action rifle leaned in a corner below a dozen traps hanging from nails, a box of cartridges on the floor beneath it. On one wall hung three beaver pelts and a great many smaller muskrat and marten furs; on the opposite wall hung two wolf hides. The home smelled of tanned leather and wood smoke. A large bear hide was stretched and nailed on a wall outside, dry and cracked from the sun and wind.

“There you are,” their mother said without turning.

Millie steeled herself for Mother’s reaction.

“I told you to go find your sister a long time ago. What took you so long? I had to gather the firewood and prepare the soup by myself.”

Then Mother looked over her shoulder and saw that Maura was soaking wet.

“What happened to her?” she shouted at Millie.

Millie tried to explain that she couldn’t find Maura at first, that she had finally seen her playing on the other side of the creek, and that when they crossed the creek above the bridge, her little sister had fallen into the water.

“It’s your responsibility to watch after your sister,” Mother said sternly, stirring the pot with a rough, hand-carved wooden spoon. “How many times have I told you that you must take care of her?”

Millie looked at the earthen floor. She couldn’t look at her mother’s face, couldn’t bear to see the disappointment wrinkling her forehead.

Millie hated looking after Maura. She wanted to sew and bead and sit with other older girls as they tanned moose and caribou hides for leather to make moccasins, gossiping all the while about boys. It wasn’t fair that she had to spend so much of her time keeping an eye on Maura.

Sometimes, Millie hated her little sister.

Excerpted from The Great Death by John Smelcer.
Copyright 2009 by John Smelcer.
Published in First Edition—2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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