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A Voice Great Within Us

by Charles Lillard & Terry Glavin

A Voice Great Within Us, the seventh title in New Star’s Transmontanus series, is a sensitive, poetic portrait of a language and an author lost to us. As an examination of the language once popular from Alaska to Oregon and disparagingly called the Chinook jargon, it provides linguaphiles with an overview of the history, development, and eventual extinction of a unique bridge between aboriginal tribes of the Northwest Coast and the English and French traders they dealt with. It is the last book that noted poet, logger, publisher, and teacher Charles Lillard was working on when he died of cancer last year at the age of 53. As such, A Voice Great Within Us also serves as a fitting tribute to a man who spent his life at work in the woods and words of the West coast.

In the form of a series of essay chapters written by Lillard and series editor Terry Glavin, who also contributed the moving introduction, the book also features “Rain Language,” the only long poem composed in Chinook in the 20th century. By placing the poem immediately after the introduction, Glavin orients the reader to the book’s main argument: that Chinook was (and is) a language, capable of all the expressiveness of language, and deserving of study.

There are chapters on the history of Chinook, as well as a lexicon, and a gazeteer. One section traces the uses and meanings of the important word skookum, which has many definitions including “strong; a ghost; or a spirit place.” Lillard also writes personally about discovering Chinook in the colloquial speech of B.C.’s interior, leaving the reader with a strong sense of the language’s importance and influence. Because both Glavin and Lillard write passionately and poetically on the subject, the book will likely inspire some readers to further study; the bibliography helps, though it is largely composed of rare books long out of print. One wishes that addresses for the two current web sites devoted to the Chinook language mentioned in the text were listed as well. Peppered with illustrations from Lillard’s private collection, and attractively designed, the book makes a perfect gift for language lovers, students of the West Coast and its peoples, and those wanting a kumtux wawa lalang (“an eloquent language”) to breathe new life into.