14-year-old Kiska’s Aleutian Island home is a peaceful
paradise. Then Japan invades the islands, and an American
ship arrives to evacuate her village. Her people are taken
to an internment camp 2,000 miles away, with few
possessions, and abandoned in unlivable conditions by the
U.S. government. Based on true events, Kiska is the story of
a courageous girl who, with the help of a mysterious shaman,
breaks with tradition in order to save her people.
Foreword Reviews Book of the Day, Oct. 17, 2017
1942, 14-year-old protagonist Kiska Baranoff’s island world
turns upside down after Japan attacks Alaska.
centuries Kiska’s people, the Aleuts, have lived according
to their traditional ways on their island homes off the
coast of Alaska…. Not long after the Japanese attack, men in
American Army uniforms land on Kiska’s island. They
immediately round up all the villagers and force them into
the belly of a ship to be taken to an undisclosed
destination. Three hundred other Aleutians from many other
islands in the archipelago are also forced onto the ship. It
then travels 2,000 miles away and leaves them on Admiralty
Island, an unfamiliar and stark environment. There they are
housed in a decrepit building, an abandoned cannery that the
Aleuts eventually improve. Soon after meeting an elder
shaman, Agafon Krukoff, Kiska becomes his apprentice.
Through his teachings, Kiska discover a way to help her
people survive. Kiska narrates, describing the inhumane
conditions, the soldiers’ racism, and terrible losses. The
quiet tone of Smelcer’s text softens the cruelty the
Aleutians suffer, and in the character of Kiska, he gives
readers a strong, resourceful heroine.
at an obscure but important part of United States history.
(Historical fiction. 10-14)
Reviewed by Catherine Thureson
Kiska is the heart-wrenching story of a
fourteen-year-old girl living on the Aleutian Islands of
Alaska at the beginning of World War II. Her ordinary, happy
life in a small hunting village quickly changes when, after
Japan invades neighboring islands, she and the rest of the
islands’ inhabitants are rounded up by United States
soldiers and sent to internment camps.
Kiska and her neighbors are moved into an abandoned
cannery and given only an army blanket each. There is no
electricity, no plumbing, and little food. The American
soldiers assigned to detain them are unsympathetic and often
Though the conditions are harsh, Kiska learns to survive.
She becomes friends with a boy named Sasha and an old man
named Agafon. Agafon teaches her to fish, though it is
forbidden for girls, so that she can secretly help feed her
The fear and horror felt by the interned Aleutian people
comes through clearly in Kiska’s story. So, too, does their
will to survive, to hope, and to try to do good even in the
Even though the injustices described are difficult to
accept, Kiska is hard to put down. Photos in the
back of the book offer a window into Kiska’s time and place,
while discussion questions with each chapter will help young
adults process the story and its lessons.
Though it is a work of fiction, Kiska is based
on very real events from a tragic and nearly forgotten time
in American history. Its lessons are ones that all would do
well to remember. Smelcer’s beautifully written story of
Kiska, and of the misery she faced with hope and love, is
nearly impossible to forget.
Midwest Book Review, Reviewer’s Bookwatch
Review by Donna Rhinesmith
Perhaps there has never been a more important time to ask:
how far do our rights extend during a time of conflict? A
new book by John Smelcer offers a unique perspective on a
seldom-mentioned event in the history of pre-statehood
Alaska. Kiska tells the story of the internment of
native Alaskans during World War II. Set in 1942, the story
is framed in the voice of Kiska, now a grandmother looking
back at her own fourteenth year when japan invaded islands
near her Aleutian island home and her family is removed to
shelter in an old salmon cannery 2000 miles away.
As Smelcer describes life in the cannery, he never departs
from the humanity of Kiska's intensely personal story. Among
the richly-drawn characters, the reader meets sister Donia,
who is driven to desperation after losing her husband and
child; brother Peter, who is out hunting and initially left
behind; and Agafon, a mystical character who teaches Kiska
to listen, to hunt, and to survive. Through circumstances
that reflect hard lives and the struggle for survival, Kiska
never stops looking for hope and relationship.
Kiska presents a rich blend American history,
cultural heritage, and powerful storytelling intertwined in
a unique and enlightening way. The book is accompanied by
documentation, photographs, and the author's own account of
the origins the story. Kiska is a readable novel
that fits well within an American history and literature
curriculum for young adults, but should also be embraced by
the adult reader who will be challenged and informed by this
About the Author
John Smelcer is the
author of fifty books. His books of mythology include
Trickster, The Raven and the Totem (introduced by Joseph
Campbell), and A Cycle of Myths. In 1994, he
co-edited the acclaimed anthology Durable Breath:
Contemporary Native American Poetry. His writing has
appeared in over 400 magazines and journals worldwide,
including in The Atlantic.
The son of an Alaska Native father, John
served as executive director of his tribe’s Heritage
Foundation, compiling and editing The Ahtna Noun
Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide (forewords by Noam
Chomsky and Steven Pinker). He is now the last living
tribal member who can read, write, and speak Ahtna. For four
years he served as the director of Chenega Native
Corporation’s Language and Cultural Preservation Project,
working with elders to compile The Alutiiq Noun
Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide (foreword by H. H.
The Dalai Lama) and editing The Day That Cries
Forever and We are the Land, We are the Sea. In
1999, Ahtna Chief Harry Johns designated John a Traditional
Culture Bearer, awarding him the necklaces of the late Chief
Jim McKinley. That same year, John was nominated for the
Alaska Governor’s Award for his preservation of Alaska
Native languages and cultures.
The Trap, John’s first novel,
received the James Jones Prize for the First Novel and was
named a Notable Book by the American Library Association and
the New York Public Library. The novels The Trap and
Edge of Nowhere were both published in the UK and the
U.S., and Lone Wolves was included on the American
Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer list as one of the best
feminist books for young readers in 2013.
Read more at www.johnsmelcer.com.
• John Smelcer
188 pages • ISBN 978-1-935248-93-4 • Trade paperback, $12.95
Published by Leapfrog Press LLC • www.leapfrogpress.com
Distributed to the trade by Consortium Book Sales &
Distribution • www.cbsd.com