In her debut middle grade novel, Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson crafts an exquisitely immersive tale describing the mythical origins of the Iñupiaq Messenger Feast and how the Iñupiaq people acquired song and dance.
A boy named Pinja is sent on a mountain journey by his family to get obsidian for their toolmaking. His mother can’t help but worry; it’s the same mountain where his two older brothers disappeared. Nonetheless, it’s a vital task, because this small family lives off the land and never takes more than what’s necessary, surviving “thanks to the animals and their kindness and generosity—and a heavy dose of luck.” They rarely see others and are extremely cautious the few times they do.
When Pinja reaches the mountain, he is immediately confronted by an immense eagle god named Savik, who snatches him and takes him far away to Savik’s eagle god family. Pinja remains prisoner for 14 moons, learning many difficult lessons from the eagle gods, including how to dance, sing, drum, build a large gathering hall and become a leader.
Pinja is thoughtful, intelligent and determined, and his intense yearning to return home drives him to study and learn from everything he encounters—even a cute lemming teaches Pinja to see the power of combining strength with others. Gradually, Pinja realizes an important new concept, one foreign to his family: “Why would you do things alone when you can accomplish so much together?”
Rainey’s writing is taut and finely chiseled, as in this description of the endless ennui of Pinja’s imprisonment: “The days cut at him like obsidian against grass with their slow emptiness.” Her fine-toned illustrations showcase the beauty of the Alaskan landscape and its people, while her knowledgeable, passionate descriptions of survival in a harsh environment integrate well into the ongoing action. Rainey herself lives with her family in a remote Alaska Native village in the Brooks Range, where they follow a predominantly subsistence life and try to preserve traditional Iñupiaq values and knowledge.
Eagle Drums marks the impressive debut of a gifted writer. Rainey gives readers an engrossing, exciting look into Iñupiaq culture while offering invaluable lessons about the power of community, kinship and celebrations.