Carol Feller Brady speaks about writing from her Juneau apartment on Friday.

Carol Feller Brady speaks about writing from her Juneau apartment on Friday.

Native American Heritage Month profile: Carol Feller Brady

In the late 1930s, when she turned 10, Carol Feller Brady — born Alice Carolyn James, the youngest of 11 children — entered the part of her life described in her memoir as “the storm.” And though she’s been through more than it seems possible for one person to survive, her story is remarkable not only for the trauma she endured, but also for the way that, now 88, she’s managed to come into the “sun” of her life, finding and giving love in spite of all she went through.

The memoir started as a letter to her children — and even now, it’s addressed to them.

“I sat down and I started writing about how my dad worked two jobs in the Depression to keep my family in school,” she said. “I talked about the responsibilities people were taking on.”

It also became a way for her to heal.

“I wrote those (first) three pages and all of the sudden I got so frightened,” she said. “I felt like there was something there going to harm me… it was the healing process. Some of that scary trauma.”

Here’s some of that trauma, as recounted in her memoir.

When she was very young, Brady’s father, Raymond James, got sick and became bedridden after the deaths, from illness, of three of her sisters. Even from bed, though, he was an active father in his children’s lives for those eight years. When Brady was 10, though, her father died. Shortly after that, two of her brothers died — one, with a friend, was on a boat that began to sink. The other brother swam out to try to save him. Both drowned. Her mother entered a depression and died two years later.

She went to live with her sister, Flora, and became “a child slave.” Her sister and brother-in-law were alcoholics who had difficulty expressing love for her, and she cared for their children, and the home, missing school until she was 15 and applied to attend the Wrangell Institute.

When she got in, her sister asked her not to leave, telling her she’d work her less hard. She stuck with her decision. When she arrived in Wrangell, a doctor told her she wouldn’t have lasted two more months – she had a bad heart, he said, and she’d almost been worked to death.

Just a few months after she arrived in Wrangell, her sister’s house in Sitka burned down. She, her husband, and all their children died.

“I carried that around for 70 years, that I had to leave them with alcoholics,” she said. “I hoped, way back in my 15-year-old mind, that they (my sister and brother-in-law) would quit drinking.”

Her trials weren’t over, however. After she got married, the house where she was living caught fire, and she narrowly escaped. Her sister-in-law Erma, with whom she was very close, died. In 1964, her first husband, John Feller, died while gillnetting.

When she talks about what got her through those dark years, she thinks of two things. First is the bliss that was her early life.

“I had such a glorious life from one to 10 around Sheldon Jackson School,” she said. “I can’t tell you how beautiful it was, living there.”

Her mother, Elizabeth Kadashan James, was originally from Wrangell; her grandfather, Chief John Kadashan, was a highly regarded storyteller and a guide to John Muir. Her father, Raymond James, was from Sitka, and she grew up surrounded in the history of the Kiks.ádi. (On her wall, now, she has a print of Louis S. Glanzman’s “The Battle of Sitka,” an image from the 1804 battle between the Kiks.ádi and the Russians.)

She played in Totem Park, around the Indian River, and the SJS campus, growing up in the Presbyterian cottages around the school.

“It was such beautiful light (in the morning),” she said. “We’d go into the woods and get armloads of early greens and eat that. Those were our vegetables. That’s why I’m here yet, I guess.”

She loved being around SJS’ students, Alaska Natives from around the state, and its employees, some of whom had come from as far as Africa and Europe, she said.

“That’s some kind of education, to be amongst people with all different ways,” she said. “We absorbed a lot.”

She grew up at a time Native people were being told to become more Western.

“The meaning of going Western, in the ‘20s, was to get out into the world and communicate,” she said.

Her father worked two jobs to pay the $125-a-year tuition for his children to attend the school — something that would later become the cause of his illness, she said, as he was overworked.

Her parents, who were graduates of the school and involved with it and the community, took her everywhere. She loved listening to her church’s choir, and going to socials at the minister’s house. And she had a good group of friends and extended relatives.

“I needed that early childhood development,” she said. “It was too wonderful. I do feel like that was what I needed in my life to keep me going for the rest of the way.”

The second thing that got her through is music. More than seven decades later, she can still recite high school songs by heart — as well as a poem, by her grandson Gary Stevens (Goosh-Tlein), that is at the beginning of the book and gives it its title.

“I think that’s what really kept me happy,” she said. “I associate music with people and places, and I always took a liking to all those real lively songs when I was little. So I started singing them. I realized ‘Gee, that helped the pain.’”

But though her early childhood and music are what helped her survive her trauma, writing, she said, is what helped her heal.

She began writing “Through the Storm” after she married her second husband, Brookner “Scotty” Brady, and moved to the San Francisco area.

She showed her first three pages to her husband and mother-in-law, who encouraged her.

“She (my mother-in-law) said… Write the way you feel,” she said.

Now, she’s working on another book about war in Southeast Alaska, and the stories she knows about it. As a child, her grandmother and aunt told her stories of the battle of Sitka — how women fought alongside the men, and how the Russians captured a relative those fighting the battle thought dead, keeping him prisoner for the rest of his life.

She also grew up at a time Sitka was becoming a base for World War II.

“I guess I just love to try and share those stories,” she said.

“Through the Storm Towards the Sun” is available on Amazon. Brady will also be selling copies of her memoir at Public Market in Juneau, Nov. 27-29.

• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

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