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Mammoths of the Great Plains
by Eleanor Arnason

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 8, 2022

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This is another in the Outspoken Author series from PM Press, several of which I've bought, others provided free through Edelweiss, retroactively. Since it was published 12 years ago I wasn't compelled to review it by a particular time, but rather chose to wait until I had read Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People, which as far as I can recall was the first I had read by her. As with the others in this series it is short, containing only one story, the title novella, plus an essay, an interview by series editor Terry Bisson, and a bibliography of Arnason's work up to that time. The novella is an alternate history tale, related by a woman to her granddaughter, describing work she and her ancestors had done to preserve mammoth specimens in freezer chambers until they could be revived or cloned.

You might be thinking that is something that has actually happened, or is currently happening, so why is this alternate history. In this reality mammoths lived into historical times, in fact the last one, in a zoo or circus, died in 1957. Even though most of the story is told by Clara, the first-person narration is by her granddaughter, who I don't think ever identified herself by name. Both have Native American ancestry, primarily Dakota/Lakota, although several members of the family had intermarried with others, or had children with others, including Clara's grandmother, Rosa, who began the family's fascination with mammoths. Rosa had been adopted, her surname of Red Mammoth changed to that of her new parents, Stevens. She was sent east for schooling, becoming the first woman to obtain a degree in veterinary medicine from her college. In our world we know bison and buffalo were and still are important to native tribes, with many legends concerning them. In this story that also extends to the mammoths. Shortly after finishing college, Rosa had a dream in which a white mammoth told her to devote her life to mammoth care, and studying diseases that threatened them. Several historical figures are mentioned, but with a twist in this reality. The first is Meriwether Lewis, who along with William Clark explored the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territories. In our world, Thomas Jefferson accepted the story of Lewis's death as a suicide, although many others thought it was murder. Here it was suicide, brought on by depression and haunted thoughts Lewis had after killing a mammoth along the Missouri River. Another is Louis W. Hill, railroad executive, one of Rosa's employers. Most of what is said about him is the same as real life, his fascination with native culture, his collection of Blackfoot memorabilia, and his creation of Glacier Park facilities. Only in this story a lot of that had as much to do with his fascination with mammoths, for which a large portion of the park was set aside as a sanctuary.

Rosa was obsessed with her work, much less so for her ancestry. She studied with a Russian scientist in Siberia for a while, then never saw him again even though when she returned to America she was pregnant with his child. That child, Clara's mother, was left on the reservation while Rosa returned to her work at a Minnesota university. Her daughter resented that, but it didn't turn Clara away from her grandmother. Clara later went to Minnesota with Rosa, and learned of the work she was doing for the mammoths. It's a simple story, mostly dispassionate concerning the people involved, but very passionate about the fate of the mammoths. As such it can be seen as an elegy for all species lost to us through time, an examination of why that should alarm us with so many other extinctions on the brink. Clara lived in Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but this was written years before the pipeline protests, so obviously that is not mentioned. Instead, there are many accounts of other tragedies that beset her people, along with others anticipated for the future. After Rosa's death Clara discovers that Rosa had moved all the cryo-chambers from the university into her basement, so their upkeep falls to her. Another local tribe, Ojibwe, had recently built a casino on their reservation south of Minneapolis, and Clara is able to solicit funding from them to complete the project, the results of which are cloned mammoths on display near that casino.

"Mammoths of the Great Plains" was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and also for Locus and a Sidewise Award, which is devoted to alternate history.

The title of the essay is "Writing Science Fiction During World War Three." It began as a Guest of Honor speech for WisCon in 2004, and revised a year later and included in her collection Ordinary People, then updated again, and again, for this publication and others, "because history keeps happening." It includes discussion of the multiple territorial wars going on in the world at that time, the rest of the world's response to them, which in many cases was indifference. In one section she says, "Right now, it seems as if a major response by world governments is lying and resource wars." In particular she decries US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the manipulations of the economy by the banks and those who would protect the banks rather than the people. Climate science is also addressed, with an emphasis on the necessity of developing alternate energy sources. In this essay, and the interview that follows, it is apparent that Arnason's political philosophy is not just left-leaning, but radically left in comparison to the majority. I saw evidence of that in the story mentioned above and in A Woman of the Iron People. I'm sympathetic to a lot of the ideas she expresses, although a few surprised me, including what she had to say about a particular person, generally regarded positively by most on the left. Her remark was "My opinion of [X] is not fit for a family publication." I wish Bisson had pressed her on that, saying this book wasn't necessarily a family publication, so please elaborate. He didn't, and she didn't.

Arnason's father was born in Canada to Icelandic immigrants. He was an art historian, working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. From 1947 to 1960 the family lived in the art center's "Idea House #2," a prototype of future architectural housing. Her mother was a social worker and one of her aunts was a feminist, at one time president of the National Organization for Women. Her parents' friends and colleagues were an eclectic mix of academicians, activists, artists, and scientists. She relates the story of when she came home from school one day to find Buckminster Fuller holding court on futuristic design. A fascinating woman with a fascinating life and education. I may not agree with some opinions, but neither am I smart enough to debate those subjects. I need to seek out more of her work. You should too.


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Eleanor Arnason

May 2010

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