Events, Seward History

Fiction book reveals Seward’s WW II history through a child’s eyes

"When Raven Dances" author Judith Tritz, a.k.a. Polly Bigelow, talks about her book at Seward Community Library Museum. Heidi Zemach photo
“When Raven Dances” author Judith Tritz, a.k.a. Polly Bigelow, talks about her book at Seward Community Library Museum. Heidi Zemach photo

HEIDI ZEMACH for SCN –

Judith Tritz, of eastern Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Polly Bigelow, her favorite aunt , has penned a book of fiction set in post WWII Seward: When Raven Dances; WW II Invades Young Lives in Seward Alaska. Tritz became intrigued with that particular part of Seward history over many years of visiting her son Mike, who lives here.

At a presentation and book signing at Seward Community Library Museum Tuesday night, with more than 20 residents in attendance, Tritz was apologetic for being the one to write a book about this aspect of Seward history. But, being an army brat, she was a good choice. Not only is she intimately aware of the impacts that wartime life has on military communities and families, but after waiting for years for a local resident to do it, she spent six years researching the details of this book, and writing it, and can vouch for its accuracy. Although, she admitted, she’s sure that those who really try may be able to find some mistakes.

“I want you to know that my heart has been in the right place, and that I really tried,” Tritz said. She also thanked the audience for being so welcoming to her and her husband, Jim.

When Raven Dances takes place through the eyes of a five-year old girl named Marisol from New Mexico, who arrives in Seward in 1946 along with her mother, after her father was killed in the war. She befriends a number of local children including a native Alaskan boy and a Jewish girl, and through their eyes, and from other residents learn what life was like during wartime Seward. The youngsters have some pretty scary adventures together as Tritz details the dark and dusty hardships, and also the pleasures of growing up in this small Alaska town. Marisol also experiences some of the folklore of Native Americans and some of the early immigrants to Seward.

The Qutekcak Native Tribe helped her name the Native Alaskan character, and greatly helped support her in writing this book, Tritz said. To help her paint a picture of the time portrayed in the book, she brought along a poster board of enlarged black and white photographs that included a view of post-war Seward from what could have been a bomber plane; two photos of well-dressed, happy children from the Jesse Lee Home; and a photo of a makeshift army camp at Fort Raymond with 2,500 canvas tents.

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A week before Pearl Harbor there was a terrible fire, Tritz said. A third of the town was gone, and Seward residents were convinced that they were about to be bombed. Those who didn’t leave town in fear started digging holes to hide in, and some of these holes and bomb shelters still exist.  Folks had to endure blackout conditions at night; curtains covering the windows to keep out any light, and car headlamps covered with blue. It was a very scary ordeal, especially for the children, she said.

Old photos of WW II Seward at presentation.
Old photos of WW II Seward at presentation.

Some 2,500 canvas tents sprung up at Fort Raymond, and the military camp and streets of Seward filled with soldiers, sailors and military police, which probably scared the children witless.  Everything was very mysterious. There was a chain drawn across Resurrection Bay, and there were two or three sightings of Japanese submarines offshore.  Folks saw strange lights in various places, and one evening they sighted something suspicious coming from near the top of Mount Marathon. By the time scouts got up there, they could find only three or four footprints, leaving the impression that someone had rappelled up and down the cliffs, surveying the area from there, or had set up some sky equipment up there. There wasn’t a doubt that you had Japanese visitors, Tritz ominously informed her audience.

Although the U.S. was supposedly neutral during the first two years of the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was in fact very involved behind the scenes, Tritz said. They looked to Russia as their best hope although Russia was broke, and tired, and hadn’t much will to fight on. Washington looked to the need to protect its shores in Alaska from Japanese invaders. The U.S. started building guns, planes, and tanks, and bringing them in pieces up along the Pacific Coast on unpaved unlit roads to Fairbanks and Anchorage to be pieced together and flown to Russia. They also built and manned gun emplacements and lookout sites that can still be viewed along portions of the coastline in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Tritz warned her readers, especially the younger ones, that they might not appreciate the myths or magic in her book, as some of it is far fetched. But the author has been fascinated by myths, legends and folklore ever since the ninth grade, and more recently by pre-Columbian architecture and mythology from South and Central America and from New Mexico from the time she spent there, exploring. Tritz interspersed When Raven Dances with folklore and mythology from those cultures. She also posited the theory that the Navajo Tribes share a common language and ancestry with Alaska’s Athabascans, and that the Coyote and the Raven share similar places in the beliefs of the two peoples.

Years ago, while travelling in British Columbia, a raven squawked at her repeatedly, and in Tritz’s mind firmed up her decision to write this book. Her husband thought that the idea was crazy, but he went along with his wife, and helped out however he could.

Judging from the number of people who lined up following the presentation to purchase a signed copy from Tritz, they were apparently intrigued enough to give the book a chance.

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