Peggy Herring reimagines West Coast history in her new book, Anna, Like Thunder, and in this recommended reading list, she shares titles that share the same questions that she explored as she was writing the novel.
Anna, Like Thunder is fiction based on fact. In 1808, a Russian trading ship ran aground off the coast of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. According to historical record, the 22 people on board the St. Nikolaiwere captured, enslaved, and traded up and down the coast until rescued 18 months later. But the record also recounts that a Russian woman on the ship—Anna Petrovna Bulygina—refused rescue only a few months into the ordeal. She called the Makahs with whom she was living “kind and humane people.”
This novel explores Anna’s decision and asks questions about the early days of contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—and how the historical record portrays those encounters using language, tone, and specific voices chosen to tell the stories. Through Anna’s eyes, we witness the effects of the misguided and disruptive Russian imperial policy on the inhabitants and their land.
My research demanded that I look deeply into my own Russian heritage and, with respect to protocols, that I also reach out to the communities affected by the St. Nikolaiwreck: the Makahs, the Quileutes, and the Hoh River people.
The books on this list explore some questions I asked while doing this research—questions about memory, worldview, alternate points of view, and what the structure of a story can tell us about the story itself.
Ana Historic, by Daphne Marlatt
Marlatt is better known as a poet than as a novelist but this book deservedly holds a prominent place in her body of work. She starts with a real-life woman named Mrs. Richards who, like Anna, is barely a footnote in history. According to archival records, Mrs. Richards was a teacher in Vancouver in 1873. She was widowed. She had a piano. With these facts, the author builds Mrs. Richards’ world and then narrates it through the eyes of a present-day researcher who, like Mrs. Richards, struggles with erasure and meaning, and refuses to conform to expectations. The structure of the book and the style of writing are also non-conformist, sometimes reading, not surprisingly, like a poem.
Celia’s Song, by Lee Maracle
Several of Maracle’s books could have made it to this list, but this one resonated and stayed with me throughout my writing. It tells the story of Celia and her community, characters introduced in her novel Ravensongin 1993. The narrator is Mink, with whom Celia shares the gift of clairvoyance. Celia must come to terms with her gift as her community works its way through and ultimately heals following a brutal incident. The book asks questions about knowledge, community, and justice—in each case, whose? They are things I asked myself as I wrote the Russians’ story. Maracle’s novel also asks a question about how a story is constructed and told. This one is complex and so skillfully handled, I could read it again and again and still learn. It made me realize how a lot of mainstream literature follows accepted narrative conventions and when, as writers, we break away from them, though we risk being misunderstood, we also offer readers new and vital ways of looking at the world. We need books like this right now.
Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors, by Charlotte Coté
This is a book of non-fiction about the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples who share a culture and language in which whaling plays a prominent role. Whaling goes far beyond sustenance: it’s spiritual, community-building, economic, and connects the people to their history and the heritage disrupted by colonialism. An academic at the University of Washington, Coté, from a position inside the community (she’s Tseshaht), winnows through the literature to extract fact from misrepresentation. She goes a step further, interviewing her own family and sharing some of their whaling songs, rituals, and traditions. These are a rare gift and informed the chapter in Anna, Like Thunder that centres on a whale hunt. But I also learned from Coté a little bit about how to interpret some of the 19th and 20th century texts about Indigenous peoples on the coast. After turning a critical eye to the written record, how should we decide what’s worth saving?
The Heaviness of Things that Float, by Jennifer Manuel
This is a novel that skillfully handles the contemporary places where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people meet. Bernadette is a nurse living in a small, fictional town on the coast of Vancouver Island. After forty years on the job, serving the mostly Indigenous population, she’s about to retire. An outsider like Anna, she lives out those last days on the job and is reflecting on her legacy when a crisis strikes. As the community works its way through the crisis, painful memories surface and Bernadette asks herself some tough questions about what it means to belong. As with Anna, Like Thunder, truth and myth are intertwined. This is a book I’ve bought three times—because each time I buy it, I end up giving it away to a curious friend. I need to buy it once again and, this time, hang onto it.
The Adventure and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt—Captive of Maquinna, by John Jewitt, annotated and illustrated by Hilary Stewart
Many people who’ve studied British Columbian history will know about John Jewitt. From 1803–1805, scant years before Anna’s captivity, the armourer (metal worker) was held captive by the Mowachaht people who live in Yuquot in Nootka Sound. One of the most powerful chiefs on the coast, Maquinna, was both his master and his guide to the Indigenous world. Jewitt kept a diary which is replete with detail about his day-to-day life. While he tells of some hardship, he also recounts experiences that bring into question what exactly captivity meant in his situation. Chief Maquinna appears as a character in Anna, Like Thunder—a rival to the Makah chief whom the Russians call Yutramaki and with whom Anna lives for some months. Yutramaki tells Anna the story of how he was instrumental in Jewitt’s rescue—a portent to the rescue of the Russians that the Makah chief also eventually arranges in 1810.
What makes the Stewart edition of the diary so wonderful are her annotations and illustrations. If you want to know what a traditional halibut hook looks like and how it works, or how a cedar dress is worn, you need only look in the margins where Stewart shows it. With great care, she sets the record straight or fills out the places in the narrative where Jewitt was not quite right in his assumptions or descriptions. It’s a treasure loaded with art, ethnobotany, natural history, and so much more.
The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley, by Beth Hill with Cathy Converse
Frances Barkley, wife of a British sea captain, journeyed with him around the world in the late 18th century. Among the places they visited was the northwest coast of North America where, in 1787, they were trading for sea otter pelts, much like the St. Nikolaiwas twenty years later. As a wife accompanying her husband on a sea voyage, the main character of Anna, Like Thunder, may have had a lot in common with Frances Barkley. But we can’t know: the diary Barkley kept has been lost, and most of the record of her experiences is based on Reminiscences, a short book she authored when she was 66 years old, after time had smoothed the edges of her memories.
The work of Beth Hill and Cathy Converse delves into Barkley’s life story, trying to reassemble some of the voyages using Barkley’s book, other historical sources, and stories recounted by family members. It’s another example of work to bring alive the story of a woman marginalized in history, and to dispel the myths founded on assumptions made in the record and transmitted over the centuries.
Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom, by Leslie A. Robertson and the Kwagu’ɫ Gixsam Clan
Jane Constance Cook was a Kwakwaka’wakw leader and activist who died in 1951. The historical record shows her as a woman who criticized Indigenous practices, including the potlatch, and went so far as to support the potlatch ban asserted in Canadian law from 1885–1951. Her family felt this characterization was an injustice that erased her Indigenous activism, failed to relate the context under which Cook acted, and flattened the way people see her today. Over the course of nearly ten years, the family worked with anthropologist Leslie A. Robertson to reassemble the details of Cook’s life. The resulting book weaves storytelling in with history and biography, and assumes a complex and layered form, just like the woman whose life story it tells. I admire its collaborative approach to resolving questions about colonial record.
“The Disempowerment of First North American Native Peoples and Empowerment Through Their Writing,” by Jeannette Armstrong. In An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English, edited by Daniel David Moses and Terry Goldie
Armstrong wrote this essay for the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild annual conference in 1990, but the ideas are still fresh. She talks about a writer’s rights and responsibilities, placing them in historical context. She says Indigenous writers are tasked with examining the past and affirming a new vision for the future. She challenges non-Indigenous writers to “turn over some of the rocks” in their own gardens and try to answer questions about racism, domination, and the romantic bias of the literature of pioneering. I kept a copy of this essay on my desk for the six years it took me to write Anna, Like Thunder.
After you read Armstrong’s essay, check out the rest of the anthology. There are beautifully written, strongly worded pieces from the last two centuries which reveal that many of the concerns of today—sovereignty, land rights, treaty enforcement, and relationships with the colonial powers—have been with us for a long time.
In 1808, eighteen-year-old Anna Petrovna Bulygina is aboard the Russian ship St. Nikolai when it runs aground off on the west coast of Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula. The crew, tasked with trading for sea otter pelts and exploring the coast, are forced to shore into Indigenous territory, where they are captured, enslaved, and then traded among three different Indigenous communities. Terrified at first, Anna soon discovers that nothing—including slavery—is what she expected. She begins to question Russian imperialist aspirations, the conduct of the crew, and her own beliefs and values as she experiences a way of life she never could have imagined.
Based on historical record, Anna, Like Thunder blends fact and fiction to explore the early days of contact between Indigenous people and Europeans off the west coast of North America and offers a fresh interpretation of history.
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