Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage & Survival by Velma Wallis – Book Review

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosures here.

Two Old Women, written by one of Alaska’s most influential and important indigenous authors, Velma Wallis. The story is based on an Athabascan legend and depicts universal themes.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage & Survival by Velma Wallis – Book ReviewTwo Old Women by Velma Wallis
Published by Harper Collins on June 29, 2004
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary, Social Science, Ethnic Studies, Native American Studies
Pages: 160
Buy on Amazon

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 on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community and forgiveness "speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness and wisdom" (Ursula K. Le Guin).


This compelling story about two frail and complaining old women deemed dispensable by their tribe hooked me right away. I read the book in one sitting (it isn’t very long).

Photo of pen and ink illustrations by Jim Grant in the book Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

The second-hand paperback copy of the book I read contained pen and ink illustrations drawn by Athabaskan artist Jim Grant. These added a lot to the book, depicting the clothing, tools, and equipment the women used.

I love maps, so finding this pen and ink map with detailed illustrations of the region where the women roamed added a lot to the reading experience.

Pen and ink map by Jim Grant of the Alaska region where Two Old Women by Velma Wallis takes place.

Earlier this year I read the book Kabloona by Gontran De Poncins, which depicts a different group of Arctic people, but they had a similar strategy for the old, weak or ill. Leave them behind to die of starvation or cold so that the stronger, younger tribe members have a better chance of surviving.

Fortunately, this tale turns out differently for the women in this book because they pull on inner strength and courage they thought had abandoned them. It is rare to find books with older women heroes who beat the odds. This story delivered.

Adventures featuring older women are calling to me these days. If you also enjoy this type of book I bet you will enjoy Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage & Survival by Velma Wallis – Book ReviewGrandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery
Published by Chicago Review Press on April 1, 2014
Genres: Sports & Recreation, Outdoor Skills, History, United States, 20th Century
Pages: 288
Buy on Amazon

Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. By September 1955 she stood atop Maine's Mount Katahdin, sang "America, the Beautiful," and proclaimed, "I said I'll do it, and I've done it."
Driven by a painful marriage, Grandma Gatewood, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person-man or woman-to walk it twice and three times. At age 71, she hiked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity, and appeared on TV with Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter. The public attention she brought to the trail was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction. Author Ben Montgomery interviewed surviving family members and hikers Gatewood met along the trail, unearthed historic newspaper and magazine articles, and was given unprecedented access to Gatewood's own diaries, trail journals, and correspondence. Grandma Gatewood's Walk shines a fresh light on one of America's most celebrated pedestrians.


One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *