And She Was

And She Was

by Cindy Dyson

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is And She Was by Cindy Dyson. Ms Dyson grew up in Alaska, and her love for her barren, desolate and beautiful home shines through.

Remember the 80s? You had the uniform — tight jeans tucked into high heeled boots, big hair, and lots of partying. At least if you lived someplace with a mall or a movie theater, you could take a break and drive downtown. But in this book, there is no downtown, and no one to go with. It’s set at the end of the world, in the Aleutian Islands. It’s a fishing economy too, so the men spend most of their time at sea. The women mostly wait for the men to come home. Brandy follows a man there, and finds herself in the middle of a mystery that reaches back to the native women of the 17 and 1800s, and we follow some of their stories too. Normally I think books that use song titles are cheating a little, but that phrase keeps demanding an answer — and she was — what? That’s what the Aleut women decide for themselves, and that’s what Brandy seeks to discover in this excellent novel.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is And She Was by Cindy Dyson.

Imagine no TV. Take away the internet, the movie theater, the mall, nice places to eat and oh yeah, indoor bathrooms. So, what do you want to do tonight? Oh, I forgot to mention that you live in a fishing village at the end of nowhere and your boyfriend — in fact, almost all the guys — are out at sea and won’t be back for weeks. When Brandy, the heroine of And She Was decides on a whim to follow her new boyfriend north to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, I could almost hear her telling herself, “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Brandy is a very smart woman with an aimless streak and a fear of commitment that she picked up from her drunken, scary parents. She gets a job at the roughest bar — of the two in town — the Elbow Room. She falls into the routine of drinking, partying, and waiting for her man to come home, like every other woman in town.  And the women we meet are a pretty sad lot, the native women are mostly substance abusers, and the white women are right there behind them. Brandy looks down on the other white cocktail waitresses in town because she’s a natural blonde and they hit the bleach. She’s got a whole hierarchy of blondeness, and as a reformed blonde, I think she may be on to something. So its party, fight, wait for the men.  It seems simple. But then there wouldn’t be a story.

Brandy’s hobby is reading and making notes on bathroom graffiti, and as a barmaid she sees a lot of the insides of bathrooms. The first thing she sees at the elbow room says ‘killing hands’ — a mystery! The mystery takes us back to the 1700’s and the Aleutian islanders’ first contact with the west. Has that ever gone well? In this case the bad guys are Russian fishermen and traders who immediately set to work wiping out the native population. It is up to the women of the tribes to take their destinies in their hands and save themselves. The idea of owning your destiny runs through this book, from the brave native women who make a pact that carries from the past, to Brandy who must face her own past.

Dyson gets all the details of life in the 80’s in that remote place — the already faded Billy Idol poster in the outhouse, the too tight jeans worn with high heeled boots even if you’re going hiking in the woods — man, I know I did that — and the endless rounds of drinking and partying, the difficult and rough life and sudden violence,  and casual hookups — no, you kids did not invent hookups — that attended small town fishing villages, I guess small town in general. And the carefully researched glimpses of the vanished tribal life — Aya and her daughters — was fascinating and sad. My one complaint of this otherwise excellent book is the very end — Dyson wraps it up in two pages, more like she didn’t want to give anything else away rather than that she ran out of story. I guess that saying tell me more makes this a successful story. The question of the title remains — and she was — what was she? This book says the answer is up to her.

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