“The Eskimo Connection” begins in the late winter of 1975, when Emiko Toyama, a Nisei poet and widow living in Los Angeles, receives a letter from a young Eskimo prisoner-patient at a federal penitentiary in the Midwest. Alden Ryan Walunga has read one of Emiko’s poems in an old AsianAmerican magazine and wants her to critique an essay he has written for a prison publication.
Emiko is very hesitant to continue the correspondence and to give Alden her impression of his essay for two reasons: she does not see what they could have in common, and his essay is a “brief but remarkably confused” piece on the ruination of his native land that turns into a “sermon” on biblical prophecy. Emiko remembers an experience she had in the internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, which taught her what sensitive egos artists often have. As well, two other experiences she remembers remind her that “most egos are covered with the thinnest of eggshells.”
But Emiko eventually decides to respond to Alden’s letter and provides him with some carefully worded suggestions about his writing. This begins a correspondence between the two, with Emiko learning numerous things about the prisoner: he spent two semesters at the University of Alaska and has read quite extensively; he is the third of seven children; he is being treated for depression with massive doses of Thorazine and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the prison; and he has ‘ ‘come to Christ” and considers the study of ‘ ‘His Word” the primary concern in his life. Emiko sends him Asian-American magazines and other material but is dismayed at the limits the prison puts on how many publications he may receive.
Emiko learns how restricted Alden’s life is in prison and wonders if prison is ‘ ‘the relinquishment of every liberty that those on the outside took for granted.” But she also notes that Alden is “an exuberant spirit even under these stifling conditions.” He writes that he has received fifty dollars for a poem to be published in a New York magazine, and she congratulates him.
Suddenly, Emiko stops hearing from Alden. She focuses on her life in Los Angeles as a grandmother and mother struggling to pay the bills and to take care of her family after the death of her husband, Mils. She feels that there is something “insidious” in the air, as most of her friends, neighbors, and relatives all seem to be getting divorces, even after many years of marriage. She wonders if she and Mils would have fallen to such a fate if he had lived longer.
Alden begins corresponding again after a break of a few months, apologizing and saying that he has experienced a spiritual crisis. They exchange a couple of letters on how both of them are seeing changes and upheavals in their lives. Alden stresses to Emiko “the importance of holding fast to the Lord Jesus Christ.” Emiko notes that Alden never writes of why he is in prison, so she decides that he is in prison for forgery, as a favorite neighbor of hers was in prison for this crime. Emiko considers that she is not very comfortable with the idea of putting people in prisons and is against capital punishment, but she acknowledges that there should be some system for separating those who are an immediate danger to the public from society.
In February of 1976, Alden sends a Valentine’s Day card to Emiko, noting that he is being transferred to the McNeil Island Penitentiary, near Seattle, and he wonders if she might be in the area to see him there. He also thanks her for the pictures she has sent him of her family. She writes him that family matters prevented her from meeting him, and later she feels bad for not making the effort to visit with him.
In July, though, Emiko is scheduled to attend the wedding of her childhood friend’s son in Seattle, and she believes that she is being given a second chance to see Alden. She makes the official arrangements to visit the prison, but the finished paperwork does not reach her by the time she must leave for Seattle. Emiko figures that she should not have too much trouble finishing it once she is in Seattle, especially since she is coming all the way from Los Angeles. But the prison authorities deny her permission to visit Alden, and she cannot understand why.
When she returns home, the mail includes an official letter from the prison stating that, after all, she has been put on Alden’s visitor list. Yamamoto writes,”Thanks a lot, she thought, knowing that she would probably never have the occasion to go to Seattle again.” She reads the information included in the letter covering the numerous rules visitors must follow when visiting a prisoner.
In his next letters, Alden does not talk much about Emiko’s failure to secure a visit but writes that he will take classes at a community college in the fall and is busy working on his own translation of the Gospels from the Greek. He also sends her a story entitled “The Coffin of 1974,” which Emiko finds disturbing with its dark and bloody images. It is the story of a young Eskimo man who kills his uncle and rapes and kills a female relative and dies afterward. But the story has a happy ending, as the young man does not actually die but is “reborn in Christ, a new man, washed clean of his sins.” Emiko is stunned by the story and wonders if this is Alden’s story of himself. She shakes off her concerns and returns the story to Alden with suggestions as to how to improve it.
Alden’s final letter to Emiko is in September, from the Seattle City Jail, where he has been transferred for his own protection after telling the McNeil Island authorities about a homosexual rape he witnessed. He also reports that he has been recommended for a transfer to Alaska, where he can be closer to his family. Because she is involved in “the mire of modern family life,” Emiko does not answer his letter until almost Christmas, but it is returned by the jail, stamped “Unclaimed.” She never hears from him again and simply decides that he must be too busy with his many projects and interests to continue being the pen pal of’ ‘some old woman” in California.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Hisaye Yamamoto – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.