Life at High Latitudes
- Farley Mowat (Author)
High Latitudes. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Edith Iglauer (Author)
Inuit Journey: The Co-operative Venture in Canada's North. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Natasha Thorpe (Author), Naikak Hakongak (Author), Sandra Eyegetok (Author), and Kitikmeot Elders (Author)
Thunder on the Tundra: Inuit Quajimajatuqangit of the Bathurst Cariboo. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Farley Mowat is no stranger to the Arctic or his readers, while Edith Iglauer is less famous, and the creators of Thunder on the Tundra will almost certainly be new names for those of us living south of sixty. Nevertheless, these authors are telling stories about the North in very similar ways. I continue to be impressed with the number of books about the North published every year, and I note with interest how confessional or autobiographical they are. If I can identify any shift in the desire to write personally about the North it is this: southern writers increasingly choose to incorporate the voices of northerners into their narratives and northerners are increasingly telling their own stories. The resulting polyphony of voices is fascinating and enriching because with each book our understanding of the North is expanded, enriched, and made more complex.
Mowat has written extensively on the North, usually in a highly personal, idiosyncratic voice, and he has often used the first person in works like Never Cry Wolf that straddle the line between autobiography and autobiographical fiction. In High Latitudes he has dropped that single, authoritative persona to include others’ voices in a polyvocal memoir of his 1966 travels across the Arctic. Interspersed with his own descriptions and recollections are long passages from the first-person accounts of people he met on that journey. Some of these voices belong to white old- timers like the Oblate priests who insist on christianizing the Inuit; some belong to younger men who are in their lonely out-posts for short shifts with the government or the HBC. When recalling his own memories of the trip, Mowat gives us hair-raising accounts of flying in a twin-Otter with his interpreter and a northern pilot through dense fog, failing light, rising storms, or—thankfully—brilliant sun and blue skies as they made their way from Churchill east to Baffin Island and west again across the top of the country, dropping into some of Canada’s most remote and isolated communities. For readers who follow northern lore, some of his interlocutors will be familiar— Terry Ryan in Dorset, Ernie Lyall in Spence Bay, or Mary Carpenter in Inuvik—but many of the voices recorded here seem to speak to us today, in 2003, out of some timeless reservoir of memory that would be lost if not for Mowat’s recollected gathering. And the stories they tell, merging as they do with Mowat’s voice, provide a texture to life in the North that would be hard to capture except through this composite remembering. Although many events are familiar (if you have followed northern stories over the past eighty years), they are woven together in a fresh way by Mowat’s method. Here again is the story of Inuit relocation and exile that precipitated the tragedy of Soosie, who was driven mad by her suffering and killed by her family to protect the tiny community, and of Judge Sissons who refused to inflict further torment by imposing white justice on those who executed her. Here too, we have the story of Inuvik’s creation, one that was first captured by Herschel Hardin in his play Esker Mike and his Wife, Agiluk, only this time Mary Carpenter and her women friends are allowed to speak for themselves about what this coming of the whites did to them. And, of course, there is again the story of the mad trapper, Albert Johnson, whom Rudy Wiebe created as a deadly Doppelganger for his RCMP nemesis Ernest Millen in his fictionalized account called The Mad Trapper. Johnson was buried in Aklavik, but stories of him haunt our collective past, as do so many other stories of starvation, government interference, and religious intolerance, as well as stories of courage, endurance, and proud independence across the North.
By remembering his own adventures in 1996 through the voices and memories of others, Mowat has admitted that he does “hardly-know-it” (as his northern nick- name suggests), or, more accurately, he has confessed to his sources and brought them to life for us in a generous, eloquent, col- laborative narrative. More importantly, his auto/biographical method reminds us of how we all know what we know—through collective memory and shared story-telling. In her introduction to this book, Margaret Atwood insists that time is running out for the North (and for the planet), and this is surely why Mowat has chosen to produce this kind of book now. The North is not empty, barren, inconsequential; people live there, a history exists there that is ours to cherish, as well as an ecosystem, many ways of life, and a whole symphony of voices telling stories.
Compared with Mowat’s collection of voices and insights, Iglauer’s Inuit Journey seems one-sided. Her trips north also took place in the 1960s, when she travelled with government officials to report on the development of co-operative stores. The “Co- op” movement was meant to help make Inuit self-sufficient by providing outlets for them to prepare and market their own goods, be they fine art, crafts, or country foods. Today, the most famous of these co-ops is the Cape Dorset print shop and Inuit sculpture outlet. However, in this new edition of the essays, first published in 1979, she has done little to re-situate her original observations in the present context of Nunavut. Consequently, the book has an odd nostalgic, uncritical tone that suspends the events she describes outside of history.
Iglauer made several trips north into the Keewatin, the George River area of Ungava, and to Baffin Island in the company of Don Snowden, whom she credits with creating the co-op movement. Insofar as her book is about the co-ops and Snowden, it is a celebration of his efforts and successes, and I would have welcomed a somewhat longer view and a more critical appraisal of the 1960s in this new edition of the book. However, no story about going North is ever merely about the North. In Inuit Journey Iglauer tells us much about herself, her experiences of northern travel—often exhilarating, occasionally terrifying—her relationships with the whites and Inuit she meets in her travels, and her warm memories of hospitality and friendship. For me, the most moving chapter in the book is the last one, where she tells us that “in 1994” she “travelled into my past, back to the George River . . . at the invitation of Willie Emudluk.” Willie wrote to Edith asking her to come once more because he was getting old, and Edith, realizing that she too was aging, made the effort to get there. Their reunion is a moving testimony to connection and communication across race, language, gender, and above all across time and cultures, and this surely is the most valuable insight the book offers.
Thunder on the Tundra takes the reader to the Kitikmeot area of Bathurst Inlet on the western edge of Nunavut. It also brings us forward to the present by presenting this beautiful part of Canada through the eyes and words of Qitirmiut elders. Natasha Thorpe, the principal researcher on studies of the caribou in the great Bathurst herd, functions here rather as Julie Cruikshank does in Life Lived Like a Story and Julie Wachowich does in Saqijuq—hers is just one voice and she quickly recedes behind the voices and stories of the Inuit as they tell us about their deep cultural links with and knowledge of the Tuktu (caribou). Thunder on the Tundra “is by and for the Kitikmeot elders and hunters involved in the Tuktu and Nogak Project” (a research project on the Bathurst area caribou), and it represents a “community-driven” effort to preserve Inuit knowledge about the Caribou. The basis of the book is the 37 interviews held with hunters and elders between 1996 and 2000, but the narrative woven from the interviews is supple- mented by splendid maps, photographs, drawings, linguistic information, and extensive quotation.
The authors of the book speak with a collective voice when providing background or commenting upon the many challenges faced in undertaking this kind of work. Thus, there are sensitive reflections on what happens to oral narratives when they are frozen by writing them down or on what is lost through translation from the local language, Inuinnaqtun (a dialect of Inuktitut, which is spoken across the Canadian Arctic), into English. Significantly, what is lost is the rich nuance of Inuinnaqtun, which has many words for caribou or where a single word like nuna (land) conveys the complex inter-relationship of human, spiritual, and animal life with the tundra. This is the kind of collective effort I have come to expect from contemporary research in the North, and it is a fine example of the new order of cultural study that returns information to the community that created it as well as providing others, who may never have the chance to go north, a glimpse into a remote but precious part of our shared world.
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Books reviewed: Fearless Warriors by Drew Hayden Taylor, Echoing Silence: Essays on Artic Narrative by John Moss, and Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Cartography to Colony by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island by Daniel W. Clayton
- The Real and the Other by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: Les Indiens blancs: français et indiens en Amérique du Nord (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) by Philippe Jacquin and Louis Riel: poèmes amériquains by Mathias Carvalho and Jean Morisset
- In Search of the Sacred by David Kent
Books reviewed: A Concise History of Christianity in Canada by Terence Murphy and Roberto Perin and Locations of the Sacred: Essays on Religion, Literature, and Canadian Culture by William C. James
MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Life at High Latitudes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 153 - 155)
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