Lesley Thomas,
Flight of the Goose
(Far Eastern, 2005)

It is the Alaskan Arctic, it is 1971, and Kayuqtuq "Gretchen" Ugungoreseok is a troubled young woman with a difficult past. She does not know what happened to her mother, her first foster parents were poor, pathetic, uncaring money-grubbers, and she has an ambivalent relationship with her second foster family. Now an attractive young woman in her 20s, Kayuqtuq, or Gretchen as the Outsiders have named her, is trying to figure out who and what she is, including whether she is an apprentice shaman, a rarity for a woman in that time and place. Then life becomes much more complex with the arrival of Leif Trygvesen, an Outsider who is a field biologist studying a certain species of goose and measuring the impact of oil spills on the local ecology. The inevitable slowly happens as Gretchen and Leif fall in love while trying to grasp each other's culture.

This book is loaded with information on the cultures and era involved, and the degree of detail is impressive -- and oppressive. The complexity of romance often makes a good story, and cross-cultural romances add another dimension. As many romances are, the Kayuqtuq-Leif romance is on-again, off-again. However, it changes direction so often it becomes predictable and redundant. The same is true for the culture-shock issues, with repeated misunderstandings, miscommunications and just plain misery.

Several years ago, I wrote a novel, still in search of a publisher. As I wrote, I became intoxicated with the process, and my "final" copy was close to 200,000 words long. Not long ago, I entered the novel in a contest with a 175,000-word maximum. I was able to cut enough out to meet the limit, and I believe my leaner version was better. I think the experience of writing-intoxication might have occurred in The Flight of the Goose, and I think that a trimmer version would be a better book.

One thing I look for in a novel is whether I can identify with one or more of the main characters, and possibly even like them. I did end up liking both Kayuqtuq and Leif, and I felt that I knew and understood them enough to make them interesting. That is the main reason I was able to stick it through to the end. That is not enough, though, to make this a good and recommendable book.

I have at least one other quibble. At the back of the book, there is a glossary of terms in Inupiaq, the language of the Arctic villagers in this story. At its core, it's a good idea to use these terms interspersed through the story and have the glossary to translate. It adds color and an air of authenticity. However, even as the author, Lesley Thomas, got carried away with details and the ups and downs of cross-cultural romance, I think that also overdid this native language idea. I think the best way to illustrate this is to show good and bad examples of its usage.

I found it helpful to know that Aka not only meant "grandmother" but was also a term of respect for a woman who was an elder. That enriched the story. The same is true for the term angutkoq, which roughly translates to "shaman" but definitely has many local cultural connotations. Some of terms were not readily translated into English and were so culturally embedded that the use of the rough English translation missed the mark and diminished the concept. A prime example would be atka, to refer to the part of the soul that lies within one's name. However, having a wolf be referred to as an ameguq or using ninaq for "sullen, sulky" did not add anything to the story.

So, is this a good book? If you like cross-cultural romances, and you are comfortable with a slow pace and a high level of detail, this book might be right up your alley. I believe this book was a labor of love for Thomas, and she put a huge amount of time, effort, information and, yes, a bit of her soul into this book. But for the average reader, some of that will go unappreciated. It was not the book for me. I would have enjoyed it more if more of the focus had been on Kayuqtuq's quest to become a shaman, less on the romance. I am not timid about reading long, detail-rich books, but this one tested my limits.

Oh, the sexual encounters between Leif and Kayuqtuq are described pretty graphically at times. This is definitely a book for adults.

review by
Chris McCallister

24 May 2008

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