Storytelling Across Cultures

The Snow Clown is full of stories, of course; it is also about the power of stories across cultures. Near the end of the book, a group of high school students in the Yup’ik village of St. Michael take the power of storytelling away from their teacher, who has been rehearsing the student show using Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech as the overall structure.

Note: Charlene, who you will meet in a moment, had been sent to stay with her aunt three week earlier after accusing a powerful and well-liked men of abusing her.

It’s the last period of the day and the high school seniors have a couple of surprises for me. First, Charlene is back from Anchorage. She’s a tall, shy girl with newly permed shoulder-length black hair and hard eyes. The other kids treat her carefully, as if she might crumble or lash out at any moment.

The second surprise is a new story that the class has decided to tell about the trickster Raven and how the world went from darkness to light. They’ve been getting stories from elders in the village and, they tell me, most the old folks agreed that this one is OK to perform. I start to argue for our well-rehearsed acrobatic act, but when I see their faces go blank, I know it is Raven or nothing. “Have you decided who is playing which role?”

They tell me who is playing Raven, who is the old man and who is the old man’s daughter who gets impregnated by Raven. It’s Charlene.

They stop and look at me. Do I understand what they’re doing? Will I let them use this circus act to talk about the pain in their village? Will I treat them like kids or let them take a giant step into the world of adulthood, of stories and metaphors, images and village politics?

I say, “Let’s see the Raven story” and sit down as they rehearse for the next 40 minutes; intense and oblivious to me.