The Fox Boy: A Story of Bethel Past

Nominated for the National Book Award

A review by Monica Devine

The Fox Boy is a sensitive portrayal of the Yup’ik Eskimo people of SW Alaska, their struggles and triumphs living with white outsiders (teachers, priests, store owners) who brought monumental changes, both bad and good, to their traditional way of life.

In her role as a social worker, Gretchen Brinck squarely faces her own failed expectations and works tirelessly for favorable outcomes in families besieged with alcohol abuse. She calls out prejudice and failed government programs and fights for the rights of children to be adopted within their own cultures.

As an outsider working in a culture that is not her own, her rendering is not Pollyannaish, rather a sincere telling of the pitfalls and bureaucratic tangling when faced with the nearly impossible task of doing what’s best for kids. I closed this book thinking Ms. Brinck is a woman who chose her profession because she truly cares about people. She fights for Native children, depicting the importance of placing adoptees with Yup’ik over white families.

These situations are complex, for this book is equally about the dire need to protect children from abuse.

“No innocent child should be beaten, chained with the dogs, and left to starve.” This line stayed with me for a long time afterward, and I predict others will be similarly moved. Social workers understand the need for culturally intact families, but at the same time have an obligation to protect children from familial harm.

Sandra Kleven, a social worker and the publisher of The Fox Boy, writes a compelling forward to the book, delineating how the Yup’ik culture was severely disrupted by contact with the western world. Without genetic adaptation to alcohol, the Yup’ik people have no defense, and alcohol dependence remains a chronic problem in many villages today. She, too, worked diligently in village communities where the loss of hope has led to a suicide epidemic among adolescents.

“I will always be an outsider,” she writes. “… still, my growth of soul is tied to village Alaska tundra.”

The Fox Boy is a harsh, yet tender account of one woman’s fight to right wrongs, while simultaneously dealing with the pain of her own distressed marriage in the absence of family support. The writing is universal, we can all easily empathize, but also up-close and personal. It is no wonder The Fox Boy has been nominated for the 2021 National Book Award, a prestigious honor, indeed.

The Fox Boy is available on Amazon and at the Kusko Art Guild.

Monica Devine is the author of Water Mask, 2019, University of Alaska Press.