People of the Whale, by the award-winning American Indian poet and novelist Linda Hogan, is perhaps the most stunning novel of the year. Certainly it tops my list for contemporary fiction of 2008. Hogan's elegant, concise, and subtle style can be effectively adapted to recounting Indian legends about a fishing village's relation to the sacried whale (who gave birth to humans), and to the violence of damaged Vietnam vets, determined to break the poetry of the legend by hunting the whale, an endangered species, and committing crimes against the environment.
Hogan interweaves the stories of a broken couple, Ruth, a strong-willed fisherwoman, and her drifter husband, Thomas, a Viietnam vet who disappears by choice after the war. These two stories are complete in themselves: they are subtly unbalanced by the tale of Thomas’s daughter in Vietnam, whose long life story seems to belong to a different novel. Hogan’s lovely, poetic prose compensates for the flaws, but it does detract from the novel. Yet Hogan’s world is one of contraditcions and conflicts:: the women lfeft behind in the U.S. and Vietnam, traditional cultures and the loss of belief by men who never recover psycholgically from the war and who turn on themselves.
The senseless, cruel killing of the whale and the women’s protests become a metaphor for the destruction of the old way of life and the fight of the conservationists. Hogan writes:
"On the day of the whale hunt, the gray day, only three women had the courage to stand at the shore facing the ocean fog as it lifted. Far out was the roar of the water, tlhe sound of a storm beginning in the lead-colored sky. Their eyes closed, the women sent their hearts across the ocean, willing the whales not to come near land....
"The three women told the whales not to come. But the whales no longer heard their voices or thoughts. Perthaps because the hunt had become a spectacle and not a holy thing. Their voices were drowned out by the sound of speedboats and a helicopter...This was not the way it had ever been done in the past. This was the first whale hunt since the 1920s."