Water Sky is the story of Lincoln Noah Stonewright who, at around age 13, goes to Alaska to visit friends of his father. Lincoln is part Eskimo*, but he’s grown up around Boston and doesn’t know the Eskimo ways. While he’s there, he learns a lot about the culture and wrestles with the morality of whaling. He struggles with his own identity and where he belongs. While staying with a whaling camp, he challenges his perceptions of himself, others, and the world.
It’s obvious that Jean Craighead George did a ton of research and has a lot of respect for the Eskimo culture. Her son spent time in a whaling camp and she visited him there, experiencing some of what Lincoln experiences in the book. I have to wonder, though, how accurately a culture can be portrayed by someone who isn’t part of that culture. As I’m not part of the Eskimo culture either, I can’t speak to how well George does on that front. The book is full of Inupiat terms with a glossary and pronunciation guide at the end. I found the terms slightly distracting, especially the words that ended in capital Q, such as “natchiQ.”
* I realize the term “Eskimo” is sometimes considered derogatory. I use it in this review because it is used in the novel and is most certainly not intended as an insult there.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Lincoln experiences racism from several people. He’s viewed as an outsider and his presence is often resented by some. He talks about how demeaning, hurtful, and scary it is. He can analyze it a little bit because it’s not something he grew up with.
Although it’s a minor point of the story, Lincoln’s mother seems to have strong negative emotions about the Eskimo. Lincoln remembers that his mother was furious about him going on the trip, saying that it wasn’t at all necessary. Lincoln’s Uncle Jack had gone to Alaska to try to educate the Eskimos about why they shouldn’t hunt whales, and then nothing more was heard from him. At the end, Lincoln finds his uncle who has been won over to the Eskimo ways and married an Eskimo woman. Jack had written to Lincoln’s mother about this, but she had never passed this information on to Lincoln—she seems to have disowned her brother because of his choices.
From the author’s point of view, all of the problems among the Eskimos are due to white people.
One character in particular has it out for Lincoln. He kicks him in the kidney as he walks by—Lincoln doesn’t respond, and no one does anything about it. Several times he creates “accidents” that have the potential to kill Lincoln. This is never truly dealt with—at the end, after a whale has been harvested, everything is fine and they suddenly get along ok. I found this whole subplot a bit disturbing on several levels.
Thanks to white people, some of the young Eskimos have discovered drugs. Roy is one such kid, and he’s sent to the whaling camp to dry out. This causes tension and problems, and at one point he attacks Lincoln and tries to kill him. Later Lincoln saves his life, proving that he doesn’t hold a grudge.
Most of the violence is done to animals, but there’s plenty of it. The Eskimos are very clear about never killing more than they need. Unlike the white people, they hunt only what they need and they use the whole animal. Lincoln gets his Eskimo name when he hits a polar bear in the nose with his gun (he couldn’t shoot it because the bully had unloaded it in a vicious prank).
The violence against other people is detailed in the Bullying and Drugs sections above.
Scariness & Tension
The Arctic is a very dangerous place to be, and Lincoln and the others are frequently in mortal danger. At one point, they have to flee because the ice is breaking up. An orphaned seal pup that Lincoln has been caring for has to be left behind. He’s assured that the pup will be fine, but we get no evidence of this. Soft-hearted kids who fell in love with the little seal who followed after Lincoln like a puppy might take this hard.
Male and female roles are clearly delineated, although this doesn’t necessarily mean women are looked at as inferior. Although women are rarely welcomed at the whaling camps, the wife of the captain is the second most powerful position. Bertha, the wife of Vincent, the captain of the whaling camp where Lincoln is, is a valued member of the community and is arguably the most insightful person in the book. Her marriage to Vincent is a strong and equal relationship.
Another whaler brings his granddaughter, Little Owl, along—she’s learning all the traditions so she can pass them along to future generations. Little Owl initially thinks Lincoln will think less of her because she’s a girl (quite the opposite ends up being true).
Sex & Romance
Vincent and Bertha provide an example of a loving and strong marriage. Lincoln’s parents, through his memories, don’t so much.
At one point, Vincent matter-of-factly compares mountains to a woman’s breasts, as in “It’s over that way, toward the mountains like a woman’s breasts.”
Little Owl and Lincoln have a blossoming romance. He very much wants to impress her, and he’s a little jealous of the other guys around her. In the end, though, he realizes that he’s not an Eskimo and that he can’t be a part of that community. She feels disappointed and even a little betrayed—by not becoming part of the Eskimo culture, she feels he’s rejecting her. They end on painful terms.
Religion & Spirituality
There’s a good bit of prayer in word and song, which seems to combine Christianity with nature spirituality. The animals that are killed are asked for their forgiveness. Vincent strongly believes that a specific whale is coming to give itself to Lincoln—the old whale wants to be killed, but on its own terms, which means having Lincoln involved. In the end, Lincoln comes to believe some variation of this as well.
The wellbeing of the community relies on successfully hunting a whale—sure, it provides food and other resources, but there’s a spiritual aspect to it as well. It’s been years since this community has caught a whale, and the fighting, anger, and any negative situations are blamed on this. When they do kill a whale, it’s like everything is magically better (aside from Lincoln and Little Owl, since the whale’s death drives home for Lincoln that he isn’t truly part of this community).
Vincent and the whale are linked symbolically and arguably spiritually. Vincent is dying throughout the book, and his death corresponds with the killing of the whale. This is intended to be a positive outcome. Vincent and the old whale die, but new generations are learning about the traditions and the ways of the world.
Lincoln is very much between worlds. In many ways he wants to prove that he can be an Eskimo, and he gets to the point where he probably could be a part of the community, much like his Uncle Jack. However, he has to face the fact that this isn’t his world. He’s unable to kill the whale, handing the harpoon to his friend. He painfully chooses to return home, and in the process he loses the chance of a future with Little Owl.
I have to admit, this all would have rung more true for me if Lincoln had been closer to 16 or 17 than 13. It felt like an awful lot to be on the shoulders of a middle schooler.
This is definitely an interesting and informative book. It’s potentially a wonderful insight into another culture since we see everything through Lincoln’s eyes. I would have liked more nuance, though—the Eskimo culture seemed a little too ideal which made me think it wasn’t being portrayed completely accurately.
This might be a good book for reluctant readers. It contains some challenges, like the Inupiat terms and the spiritual themes, but it isn’t very long and the issues Lincoln faces are probably things older kids can identify with on some level. There are sketches that help illustrate ideas from the book, such as the different types of ice. In some ways, it’s like a nonfiction book with a plot.
Water Sky by Jean Craighead George
Published in 1987 by Harper Trophy
Read my personal signed copy