Lessons from an ‘Outsider’ who ‘gets it right’: Guest-post by Nancy Lord

One of the pleasures of travel is finding books related to the places we visit, thus enlarging our understandings of those places before, during, or after our visits.

After visiting Kaktovik, I read Charles Brower’s memoir Fifty Years Below Zero—not specific to Kaktovik but a work that filled in, for me, some history of the North Slope and serves as a testament to the strength and resilience of its people. Last summer I briefly visited Fort Yukon, and on my return was reminded of a 2006 book about the village’s high school basketball team–Eagle Blue by Michael D’Orso. I just finished reading this lovely book, which earned from Booklist a starred review and an apt description as “a mix of sports and cultural anthropology.”

Alaskan writers (and Alaskan communities) resent, often with good cause, the “parachuting writers” who drop in on Alaska from elsewhere and all too often get our place and our people wrong. And, as has been discussed previously on this blog, rural and Native communities are particularly at risk from insensitive reporting. Michael D’Orso, the author of 15 books of narrative nonfiction, may be from the dreaded east coast (Virginia), but he seems to have put in his time and done right by his research and his relationships with the Fort Yukon community.

I read with great interest the acknowledgment section of Eagle Blue, in which D’Orso described his book-writing goals and his process for gaining the trust of the Fort Yukon community to tell the story of its boys’ basketball team, their coach, the role of basketball in rural Alaska, and, along the way, other cultural issues. First, he visited, met people, and talked about what he hoped to do—to come live in the village for the basketball season (2005) and to “shadow” the basketball team as they practiced, played, and traveled to away games. (And, he hoped, eventually the state tournament.) Then, he wrote a letter to the tribal council in which he explained his intentions and said that he was “painfully aware” of the history of writers being welcomed into communities they then portrayed in ways that caused hurt or harm in those communities.

D’Orso wrote to the tribal council, “I can tell you that I approach every subject I write about with a great amount of humility. I am the outsider. I am the guest. I am the ignorant one. I have to be patient. I have to listen. I have to watch. I have to learn. I have to let the people who agree to bring me into their world show me the way. And from beginning to end, I have to honor the enormous responsibility of sharing with the world the lives of very real human beings who have agreed to trust me to get it right.”

The tribal council welcomed him to spend the winter in the village. He rented a place to live, arrived, and took the necessary time to get to know the community (and vice versa) before the members of the basketball team and their coach agreed that he could accompany them everywhere for the season and write about what he saw and heard. In an ideal world, I’m sure we (all writers) would all love to have the time (and the book advance!) to make that sort of commitment. Most of us can’t uproot ourselves to that degree, but the attitude about being a guest and a learner and honoring the responsibility granted to us as writers is something we might embrace.

D’Orso, without a doubt, made careful choices about what went into the book and what did not, but that doesn’t mean that he sugarcoated reality. He describes problems that some of the kids have at home, drug and alcohol use, and difficulties associated with the rapid cultural change so many Native villages have faced and continue to face. Overall, though, the book is a hopeful portrait—one that demonstrates the importance of basketball in such a setting, the virtues of friendship and team-building, and the effect a caring adult (the coach) can have on young people.

I have no first-hand knowledge of what Fort Yukon people think of Eagle Blue, but I did find a newspaper article on the author’s website about D’Orso’s return to Alaska in 2006, when the book first came out. He watched the team play again in the state tournament, while George Bryson, the Anchorage Daily News journalist, noted how the Fort Yukoners on the team and in the stands responded (seemingly positively) to him.

For my own take, I could quibble with a very few facts of Alaskan history or politics that D’Orso seems to be a little off on, but for the most part he “gets it right.” (When he calls a borough a county, I wonder if that wasn’t some copy editor’s mischief.) The bibliography in the back of the book shows just what a serious reader/researcher/journalist he is.

D’Orso is one Outside writer to join my short list of those I respect for approach, effort, and rightly-acclaimed book.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from an ‘Outsider’ who ‘gets it right’: Guest-post by Nancy Lord”

  1. A great follow-up to our discussions of outsiders, insiders, and cultural sensitivity. Eagle Blue is another I’ll add to my reading list, encouraged by both Nancy’s recommendation and the surprising power and perspective of George Guthridge’s Kids from Nowhere, which I would probably not have read had I not heard good things about it here. Alas, a teacher hastened to tell me that village kids read the Guthridge book and pronounced him “arrogant.” Maybe the teacher’s view rubbed off??? At any rate, none of us writes to please everyone.

  2. I’d like to recommend a book called ‘Lucy the Giant’ by Sherri L. Smith as an example of an Alaskan book written by an outsiderwho got it right. I haven’t done commercial fishing so I can’t say that part of the story is right, but the rest of it rang true. It’s a Young Adult book, so a quick read. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

  3. Good find with Lucy the Giant. I try to stay on top of YA with Alaskan settings, but I’d missed this one.

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