New York City. 1968. I was 24. I had just graduated from college. I applied to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) as a possible deferment from the Army and Vietnam. I was young and I thought I knew everything. I figured if they had VISTA in any state they had to have VISTA in every state. I requested an assignment in Hawaii.
So naturally, six months later I'm in the very remote, tiny Eskimo village of Sleetmute, Alaska. No streets, no electricity, no phones, no television, no signs, no law. I'm wearing everything I own. I'm hunting for my food. It's fifty degrees below zero and it's getting colder........
Kirkus Reviews said Sleetmute is "incredibly entertaining" and also "Resnicoff's encounters fascinate not only because they introduce readers to a world few have ever seen, but also because he's a gifted storyteller. He channels his 24-year-old self's confusion and naivete in a way that is by turns hilarious, endearing and often quite moving".
I WAS in Sleetmute!
Between 1966 - 1970, the US Office of Economic Opportunity sent nearly 300 young VISTA volunteers into remote, impoverished Eskimo villages in Alaska. This effort, part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was intended to be the domestic equivalent ads of the Peace Corps.
Stan Resnicoff, a native New Yorker and recent graduate of the Pratt Institute with a degree in Industrial Design, was one of those volunteers. I was his supervisor. In reality ads, there was no supervision. My main job was to make sure the 60 VISTA's in my care during the winter of 1968-69 had enough food, fuel and shelter to survive. I had no idea what Stan and his partner, Phil Caswell were doing in Sleetmute, 150 miles upstream on the Kuskoquim River from my post in Bethel. But I had heard stories from folks on their way downriver about the two guys Asian Sleetmute. Phil, determined to make things happen, was causing trouble. Stan, on the other hand, was busy making friends. I was determined to to get up to Sleetmute and meet Stan.
By the time I got there, Phil was long gone but Stan was firmly entrenched as a welcomed member of the community. My visit was intended to last a day, but as described in this book, stretched into a week as bad weather made bush plane travel impossible.
In my two years as a volunteer with VISTA in Alaska, I had come to understand the true value of the program.Although the OEO had sold the Alaskan Community Action Agency on VISTA as a way to link villagers with the newly minted anti-poverty programs in arguably the poorest communities in the nation, the actual result of this four-year experiment was entirely different.
Over the centuries, the Alaskan Eskimo had developed a tolerant but mistrustful opinion of the white man. However, their greatest antipathy was reserved for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the schools stationed in nearly every native village throughout the state. Rigid and intolerant, the BIA was determined to eradicate Eskimo language and culture.
Then along came the VISTA's, nearly all of whom were young and white, recently graduated from colleges in the lower 48 with few Eskimo language skills and no knowledge of how to survive in the Arctic. Our missions were vague. We were trained in something called "community development," but most of us had no idea what we were supposed to do. Those who couldn't adapt usually left within a couple of months. Those that stayed and thrived were people like Stan. Somehow he figured out that the best thing he could do during his year in Sleetmute was demonstrate that a white man could be a trusted friend.
In "Sleetmute," Stan Resnicoff relates how a kid from the city learned to mesh with the rhythms of an Eskimo village. As Stan recounts, in Sleetmute there was "...no television, no telephone, no electricity, no plumbing, no roads, no streets, no sidewalks, no cars, no signs, no businesses, no jobs, no law" (not exactly a plum assignment). Each chapter is a true story: authentic, uncomplicated and without the hubris found in most memoirs of the volunteer experience.
Almost everything you need to know about Eskimo life in Southwest Alaska in the mid-twentieth century can be learned in the pages of "Sleetmute." It is the ideal companion piece to the cultural study of Native Americans in the far North. Stan's tender, touching, humorous and sometimes painful memories reveal a life incomprehensible in our digital age. And yet, if you visited Sleetmute today, you would find the village and its people living sadddalamost exactly as they did nearly fifty years ago. "Sleetmute" would be your ideal travels guide.
Once I started reading Sleetmute I couldn’t put it down. Resnicoff’s abbreviated style is descriptive and quickly seduces the reader into following him on his journey. Before you know it you are enveloped in the world of an Alaskan village and sharing Stan’s fears and trepidations, and also feeling great relief when he survives the extreme situations he confronts. He is a master storyteller and his narrative provides vivid descriptions of everyday life in Sleetmute. What starts as unbearable circumstance for him becomes a test of his ability to survive. His ability to indulge in self-deprecation creates humor and brings audible laughs from the reader. If you are looking for a good read and a quick trip to an exotic location than Sleetmute is the book for you. You will walk away with a true picture of life in a remote Alaskan village, and with a respect for people who adjust to extreme conditions, live with very little and have a rhythm and understanding of life that is refreshing. Bravo! Please bring us more of your stories. - C. Mishkin
Terrific tale told well
Stan Resnicoff looks back at his experiences as a VISTA volunteer in Alaska in his smart and funny book, "Sleetmute." I really enjoyed this little gem of a non fiction book!
This "city kid in the wilderness" story is told with great humor and in a natural way. The story unfolds as a series of short chapters, each one an enjoyable episode in itself. I found this format irresistible and kept reading them, one after another. Okay, just one more....and another...until I had finished it all one satisfying sitting.
Resnicoff includes his own photos in a clever style. Unlike a typical photo album book, the images here are presented in various ways: intermingled with the text or on their own. The e-book format works well for this: flipping to new "page" layout can reveal a crisp text-only anecdote, or a flowing narrative with photos, or even a wordless double "page" image. This gives the book an interesting rhythm that I enjoyed.
The individual episodes are linked together cleverly and with events and story-telling I'll not scoop here. The story stops with a suggestion of continued adventures in Hawaii. I look forward to MORE!