By Nancy Jane Moore
Book View Cafe
June 30th, 2011
I had just finished reading Eleanor Arnason’s novella Mammoths of the Great Plains when I heard that it was one of the finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction of the year. It’s also a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
That’s wonderful, because it’s a fantastic story and deserves the recognition. And it was nice to know that other people appreciated it, too.
Mammoths is set in a near future of bullet trains and efforts to deal with the effects of climate change, but it’s also an alternate history tale in which mammoths as well as bison roamed the Great Plains that stretch from Canada down through the middle of the United States.
Just think about that for a minute: Mammoths on the Great Plains. Sounds wild, but somehow mammoths seem more in context in that great grassland than the many cities threatened yearly by tornadoes.
Emma, who lives a few years from now, takes the bullet train to visit her grandmother in Fort Yates, North Dakota. And while she is visiting, her grandmother tells Emma the story of her own grandmother, Rosa, who was born toward the end of the 19th Century. The mammoths were still with us at that point, but they were on a path to extinction.
Rosa, a Lakota woman with a veterinary degree, tried to save the mammoths, but in the end all she could do was preserve their tissue against the future and leave the future work to her granddaughter.
This is a tale within a tale: we get clues to Emma’s life and what has happened with the world and we get the history of her great-great grandmother and the crusade to save the mammoths.
I’d call it a positive near future story, even if the people are struggling with the effects of climate change. Apparently a certain level of sanity has been attained and efforts are being made to repair the damage. As Emma relates:
The suburbs had been built on good land, my dad told me, replacing farms, wood lots, laikes and marshes. “A terrible waste of good soil, which could have fed thousands of people; and the land is not easy to reclaim, given all the asphalt and concrete which has been poured over it. That’s why we’ve left it alone. Let time and nature work on it and often it up!”
The story incorporates dreams in which mammoth spirits speak to Rosa and Emma’s grandmother, as well as to their ancestors. I don’t know if their are any Lakota stories about mammoths, but I certainly believed in them while reading the book.
Mammoths of the Great Plains is part of the Outspoken Authors series from PM Press. The book also includes an expanded version of Arnason’s Guest of Honor speech at WisCon in 2004.