De Quille, Dan (William Wright). The Sorceress of Attu .
Edited with an introduction by Lawrence I. Berkove.
Dearborn: Mardigian Library, University of Michigan--Dearborn, 1994.

Pp. 57. Illustrated. $20.00. ISBN 0-933691-06-8.

The following review appeared 12 July 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Wesley Britton
Grayson County College
Sherman, TX

Buy the book from
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project

This first-ever publication of The Sorceress of Attu is part of Lawrence I. Berkove's ongoing revival of neglected writings by one of "the Old West's most knowledgeable, prolific, and talented writers" known primarily for his friendship with and influence on Mark Twain both veteran writers of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise . Previous volumes include the important Fighting Horse of the Stanislaus (University of Iowa Press, 1990), a collection of short pieces demonstrating De Quille's overlooked gift for story telling and his intimate knowledge of Comstock mining. Shorter editions include The Gnomes of the Dead Rivers (Fulton Hill, 1990) and Dives and Lazarus , a novella (Ardis, 1988). The Big Bonanza (1876), the only novel De Quille published in his lifetime, reflected his early promotion of the Comstock, an area he spent over forty years in (as compared to Twain's six and Bret Harte's seventeen). According to Berkove, Attu reveals De Quille's late-life elegizing of Nevada's glory years, although most readers will find connections between the Old West and Attu 's Alaskan island legend remote at best.Written in 1894, the manuscript of The Sorceress of Attu was lost until Berkove discovered it in 1986. The short legend (thirty text pages), on its most basic level, should endear itself to young readers for its synthesis of magic, myth, and the epic travails of a young hero seeking a dowry and aided by a Shaman and a Sorceress in "a time of mysteries." This supernatural journey parallels De Quille's use of Old World "sprites" in The Gnomes of the Dead Rivers , another De Quille late-life fantasy told as a moral fable rather than a Western tall tale. Gnomes , in many ways, is a companion piece to Attu .

On another level, the legend of Attu doubly points to Native American encounters with white outsiders. The tale itself focuses on two cultures, one of spiritual, tribal symbolism and magical powers, the other warlike, materialistic, at odds with nature. And, as the story is not an authentic Aleutian legend but is rather an imaginative tale by De Quille himself, the very composition of Attu merits discussion regarding white interpretations of culture clashes. De Quille's particular perspective should draw positive responses for his depiction of native, "holy" Alaskans, his characters clearly woven from a sympathetic heart. The interlopers, in this case Russian seamen, are threats to a spiritual way of life. Support for finding De Quille sensitive to Native perspectives, again, can also be seen in Gnomes with its echo of Indian notions of property and its emphasis on human and supernatural interconnectedness.

Berkove believes that, for De Quille, the story of Attu was analogous to the ruining of the American West by the ravages of "The Big Bonanza" years, although, again, this connection would be obvious only to those intimate with De Quille's biography, knowing the author's late- life feeling that he had been part of the despoiling of the Western environment. This anti- materialistic theme as related to the Comstock is more evident in Gnomes , composed in the same period and reflecting similar concerns.

On its deepest level, the fable of Attu explores spiritual values, of pride, faith, and the consequences of foolish materialism versus the rewards of generational ties and interconnectedness with the natural world. White gunpowder is clearly a symbol of corruption; the protecting powers of the Sorceress clearly show the pure and faithful will always triumph again, a theme also expressed in Gnomes . Like Gnomes , Attu is a story as old as stories themselves and is as well told as by any storyteller with a gift for such simple sincerity.

Berkove adds three appendices to the volume demonstrating De Quille's interest in Alaskan subjects. The first, "An Alaskan Legend," is a brief sketch precursing Attu . The latter two, "To the Editor, Overland Monthly " and "The Lost Seal Island," are hoaxes De Quille wrote showing the distress he felt with Russian seamen's treatment of Aleutian islanders, a theme evident in Attu . While De Quille himself never set foot in Alaska, the detail of the last two appendices point to his research into available material, using believable details to make these hoaxes (a De Quille trademark) convincing reading for contemporary audiences.

Few scholars of Twain or western writers will find The Sorceress of Attu significant reading, save as a basis for comparison; Twain's latter-day work is marked by its surreal bitterness, and nothing could be farther afield from his views than De Quille's peaceful optimism. (An interesting compare/contrast study of these two authors could revolve around De Quille's Gnomes and Twain's Hadleyburg , both stories having differing takes on the corrupting temptation of gold, the need to look good in the community particularly regarding charity and the phrase "You are not a bad man.")

For those interested in myth, Native American folklore, and particularly white interpretations of native culture, this attractive volume, printed on archival paper, will prove both useful and enjoyable. Perhaps the best beneficiary of this edition will be the general reader interested in a quick read that is uplifting, reassuring, and gentle. For those curious about discovering and exploring De Quille's best (and more characteristic) work, The Fighting Horse of the Stanislaus remains an anthology no student of the American frontier can ignore. Attu can perhaps be best considered a supplement to Fighting Horse and the other Berkove-edited volumes, another slice of De Quille's canon that should reach a new audience for a neglected, gifted, American storyteller who, like Twain, "preached" as much as he entertained.