[Book Review] When The Whales Leave

In a documentary I watched recently, Pierce Brosnan said, “The oceans are the source of our deepest myths.” Yuri Rytkheu's When the Whales Leave is one such story, drawing from the myths of his Chukchi people in the far reaches of northern Russia. It is a story rooted in the origin myths of his indigenous people, but I must admit that the origin of the story is not what makes the novel worthwhile. Nor is it the beautiful language of the story (translator Ilona Yazhbin Chavesse said that it “sings” in the Russian).

Rather, the story is a balm to the spirit in our own moment. (I'll admit, this review was due about a month ago, around the time the world shut down from Covid-19. Stories like this one have helped me to cope). In rich and vivid language, we learn the story of Nau, the mother of the people, whose first children are the whales. Only then did she give birth to humans. The father of the people is Reu, a great whale who became human out of Great Love. Whenever there is conflict among the people, or fear, or scarcity, they are reminded that their origin is in Great Love, and that they share the fate of their world with all other living things. They are reminded that Great Love is not something we can have alone. It is something we find in our connection to our spouses, our children, our neighbors, and the creatures of the world.

Each chapter of the story unfolds a smaller narrative of a generation and their trials, much like Matryoshka dolls — each fitting into the next, painted in its own way but facing many of the same themes, grappling with the same emotions. One chapter in particular stuck out to me, when some of the men of the village decide to follow the whales and see where they go when they leave the far north. In doing so, these people discover other tribes that have similar belief, and a similar desire for the Great Love to bring peace. As long as Great Love is alive in the world, then all will be well.

As must happen in good stories and in life, a conflict arises. In this case, even the conflict is apt for our era — considering the role of humans in our relationship to the land, the sea, and their creatures. Like our own ecological strife, these issues have no easy resolution. I found myself even empathizing with one of the antagonists as he strove to do what he thought was best. I found an example of how to humanize those with whom I disagree.

When the Whales Leave is not only a great novel (and quickly becoming a favorite that I reread often), but part of a wonderful imprint of the publisher. The Seedbank Series by Milkweed Books is worth knowing — seeking to keep the indigenous stories of people alive, much like a seedbank helps to ensure ecological diversity. In a world dominated by the strife of politics and pandemic, this book is worth your time. For me, it was a story amid the noise that reminded me of what can be good in humanity, and the role we can play in shaping that good for future generations.