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The Great Death

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A perilous journey across the snowbound Alaskan wilderness.

About the Author

John Smelcer has a doctorate in contemporary literature, and has won the prestigious James Jones First Novel prize for The Trap, which is published in the USA by Henry Holt. He has a unique perspective on the Native American point of view, as he is himself an Ahtna Athabaskan Indian. He has had more than twenty books published. Many have been on Native American myth.


Gr 6-9-Smelcer draws on the early-20th-century history of his native Alaskan ancestors for this story based on the tragic effects of the white man's diseases on people who had neither natural immunity nor medicines to fight them. Two sisters, Millie and Maura, ages 13 and 10, are the sole survivors of such an epidemic in their village. Knowing that they cannot manage on their own, they strike off downriver in hopes of finding people who are still alive. The author vividly describes the progression of the disease on the afflicted, the inability of those who were still alive, but infected, to dispose of the dead properly, and the gruesome results. The sisters' flight is hampered by severe winter weather, a lecherous settler, and hungry wolves, which add to the tension in the story. The novel is part history and part survival guide. It also graphically illustrates the effects of a plague on isolated peoples. Readers come to know the sisters' strengths and weaknesses in the first few chapters. Both girls could best be described as stoic for they know that although they are mourning the loss of their parents, friends, and relatives, they must press on until they find other survivors. The cover art, a photograph of mukluks, does little to attract readers; librarians will need to booktalk this one.-Nancy P. Reeder, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, Columbia, SC Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

"John Smelcer's The Great Death is an outstanding piece of writing and undoubtedly my favourite novel of the year." -- Lindsey Stainer * The Bookseller * "A must-read by an exciting new novelist: definitely one to watch." -- Jake Hope * The Bookseller * "I had to remind myself that this is based on the real experiences of Smelcer's grandmother and her sister, their story of survival brought movingly to life in this fine novel." -- Sue Baker * Bookseller (teenage category preview) * "The storytelling skilfully combines these two elements of realism and folktale, becoming both a practical and spiritual handbook of survival. It has much to offer children of nine to thirteen. Remote as it may seem from their own lives, its core experiences are universal." * Books for Keeps * "Vividly written and eventful tale." * Carousel *

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