Arctic and Human Remains
- Pat Sandiford Grygier (Author)
A Long Way from Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- James Houston (Author)
Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard C. Davis (Editor)
Lobsticks and Stone Cairns: Human Landmarks in the Arctic. University of Calgary Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Renée Hulan
Lobsticks and Stone Cairns, Richard C. Davis accurately notes in his introduction, is "a book for browsing" which should be leisurely dipped into rather than consumed at one sitting. Davis has assembled a diverse group of expert authors to write on just as diverse a group of subjects because, as he writes, a "multiplicity of voices and cultural backgrounds best reflects our constructed image of the north." Beautifully documented, researched, and presented with a wonderful collection of illustrations and photographs, each entry includes a short, biographical article and a bibliography for the further reading these glimpses will no doubt inspire. There are the explorers who met tragic deaths: Francis Crozier, whose attempt to lead survivors of the Franklin expedition to safety failed; Leónidas Hubbard, left to perish in the wilds of Labrador; the famously ill-fated Franklin and those who searched for his lost expedition. There are the explorers whose names were written on the Arctic landscape: Bering, Mackenzie, Munk, Belcher, Frobisher, and others. There are the anthropologists who documented early contact with northern Aboriginal peoples: Boas, Jenness, and Downes. The American film-maker Robert Flaherty, the Scottish writer R. M. Ballantyne, and even a few women, Jane Franklin, Mina Hubbard, and Catharine McClellan, each receive attention. Matthew Henson achieves the place in history that Robert Peary denied him as do the supporting casts of other expeditions. A few Aboriginal individuals, such as explorers, Ebierbing and Merqusâq, and cartographers, Eenoolooapik and George Weetaltuk, also receive their due.
Although I was disappointed that some of the articles avoid interesting controversies such as the tragic fate of the Inuit Robert Peary displayed in New York or the existence of Vihjalmur Stefansson’s "country wife" and Inuit descendants, their articles thoroughly do prod most of the historical debris these heroes left behind. By arranging the stories roughly by geographical region, Davis succeeds in making a map of Arctic history that reflects the way human desire and human frailty shaped that history, and he is to be congratulated on a fine collection of historical vignettes.
James Houston should have given his autobiographical Confessions of an Igloo Dweller a different title. For a book that promises "confessions," it is surprisingly short on revelations. Houston may tell his stories in the confessional mode preferred by contemporary ethnographers, building on his reputation as a storyteller, a spinner of Arctic yarn, but his storytelling lacks the self-consciousness that would make it thought-provoking.
Houston sketches the personalities of people he meets vividly, and many of them resemble characters in his novels: the crusty Hudson’s Bay Company trader, Calvin Aird, in Whiteout, or the tough, daredevil pilot Charlie and his plane "Matilda" from Frozen Fire. When Houston turns his atten- tion to the Inuit, however, his storytelling talent ceases to be an asset. Throughout, he writes for the audience that probably existed at the time of his travels, people for whom northern peoples were strange and exotic, and he generalizes about Inuit history and culture without reference to the vast body of knowledge available in both oral tradition and written documents. Travelling through the Arctic at the point of contact, Houston observes:
It seemed that these people around me possessed a cheerful, fatalistic view of life and death and had armed themselves with an abundance of native ingenuity and skills. But even then, in the late forties, one could sense that the juggernaut of civilization was grinding steadily toward this ancient world of theirs.
In this passage, the tone is confidential yet authoritative and reflects what ethnographers call "naive realism;" indeed, Houston’s ethnographic description is anything but "thick." With so many excellent studies of Inuit traditional culture available, it is difficult to understand why Houston devotes so much energy to descriptions and illustrations of commonplace objects—harpoon, ulu, inukshuk—or how he can describe enjoying a hunter’s wife as a bond of friendship but not see wife-swapping as an example of the "traffic in women." Houston might have avoided such criticism had he supported his eyewitness accounts with preliminary research on the significant events in northern history. For example, the tuberculosis epidemic described in Grygier’s A Long Way from Home is alluded to when a friend’s wife seeks medical treatment in the south. Grygier’s study offers a comprehensive account based on statistical data and interviews with survivors, health workers, and public figures. Houston misses the opportunity to give his audience even the most basic information about the epidemic.
Most of all, Houston’s attempt to provide an account of Inuit material culture distracts him from describing the major role he played in the development of Inuit art. Perhaps he is too modest to acknowledge the impact he had on Inuit art, but that impact is legendary. As the artist Pitseolak recalls in Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life, Houston encouraged her and directed her work, telling her "to draw the old ways" and to use bright colours. Unfortunately, the history of Inuit carving and the eventual emergence of the co-operative system, which would make interesting reading, receive less attention in his memoir than they deserve. I was left wanting more of the insight into this history that only James Houston could give.
There are a number of anecdotes in the book that might be called confessions, such as the now famous story of the night on which he dumped a load of carvings down a crack in the sea ice and then marked up the prices of others to make up for the loss. Houston had established a practice of buying every piece offered to him: "I believed that the important point was not to make harsh judgments" that would cause the carvers to "lose face by having their work rejected." At the same time, he did not wish to send the poorer carvings south "to the sterner gaze of art critics and buyers." Although he performed this act "sadly" and felt "unsure" about what he was doing, it remains unclear, at least to me, why he found it necessary to drop them into the frozen sea. In another instance, he reveals that he once threw the contents of four sacks of mail sent to him by admirers of Inuit art from around the world into a wild, spring blizzard. Again, the need for this dramatic scene remains obscure, and one is left wondering what he could have been thinking.
- EPJ in "New" Reprint by Cecily Devereux
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MLA: Hulan, Renée. Arctic and Human Remains. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 134 - 136)
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