Women in the North
- Victoria Jason (Author)
Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. Turnstone Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lyn Hancock (Author)
Winging It in the North. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
For some years now I have been looking for women who go North and live to write about it because Northern adventure writing always seems dominated by men. Whether they go North as explorers, anthropologists, missionaries, ethnographers, filmmakers, or artists, these men all publish books about themselves and the peoples they met: Franklin, Ross, Back, Stefansson, Jenness, de Poncins, Flaherty, de Coceóla, Mowat, Lopez, Wiebe, and Only are some of the most famous and familiar. But where are the women?
A closer look reveals that many women have gone to the Canadian North and, like the men, they always write about it, or film, paint, and explore it. Martha Black was a Yukon pioneer, author, and politican; Nell Shipman filmed the North in "Back to God’s Country"; Dorothy Knight, whose story is told in "Lutiapik," was a nurse in Lake Harbour; Judith Currelly travels the North as bush pilot and painter, and Aritha van Herk has set three of her novels in the North. Much rarer amongst women is the explorer/adventurer who hikes, canoes or kayaks, sleds, and camps her way across the taiga, tundra, ice and waters of the North. However, such women do exist, and it is time we knew more about them.
The earliest example I know is Mina Benson Hubbard, who describes her exploits in "A Woman’s Way Through Labrador" (1908). Lyn Hancock and Victoria Jason are the two most recent examples. Hancock is a photo-journalist with 14 books and many awards to her credit; Victoria Jason is a Winnipeg grandmother and formidable kayaker. What these women share, apart from courage, stamina, skill, and a sense of humour, is a deep passion for the northern landscape, animals, and people. In these two books, Hancock and Jason give us very different narratives written for different reasons, but they both offer a woman’s perspective on the North and on northern adventure.
"Winging It in the North" comprises a series of vignettes, gathered over 30 years, which are loosely organized around topics such as food, sleeping arrangements, Inuit carving, attempts to reach the North Pole, or the visit of a Vancouver friend. The result resembles a scatter of snapshots with snippets of fact or description of events to anchor Hancock’s brief experiences in the wilderness. There is little of Lyn Hancock in these vignettes, but that is consistent with their purpose: these are tourist travel-writing pieces intended for magazines, newspapers, and this popular book. The tone is light, the subjects relatively safe and entertaining, and everything always turns out well. The photograph inserts are similarly up-beat; even the one of Hancock camping during a storm in Pangnirtung conveys a certain cheerful abandon.
The most interesting aspects of "Winging It" are the interjections of Hancock’s friend Ivy and the scenes of Inuit carving the Sedna story in a marble quarry north of Cape Dorset. Ivy, through her excerpted diary entries, adds a fresher, more critical perspective to Hancock’s bland prose. Seen through her eyes, the North seems more solid and interesting because more ambiguous. It is Ivy who comments sardonically that "this seemingly macho land" holds plenty of scope for women. The scene of carving at Andrew Gordon Bay is memorable for several reasons—the monumental Sedna myth being carved there, the passion of the Inuit artists doing the work, and the sheer challenge of working with marble under such remote conditions.
Victoria Jason’s adventures, recounted in "Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak," are more focussed and challenging. Although not a gifted writer, Jason conveys an authenticity and immediacy missing from Hancock’s narrative. "Kabloona" is autobiography in the raw, and Jason emerges as a woman of integrity, determination, and personal strength by overcoming one obstacle after another. If she was not a feminist before these adventures, she seems to have become one in the process of experiencing and writing about them.
The story begins in June 1991 when Jason, a novice kayaker, convinces Don Starkell to allow her to accompany him north up the west coast of Hudson Bay. Their goal is the Northwest Passage, but the trip ends later that summer after extreme inter-personal tension and some terrifying conditions. Despite their incompatibility, Starkell and Jason resume their expedition at Repulse Bay in the summer of 1992 and continue north and west. Relations between them deteriorate; Jason collapses with edema; Starkell continues, but has to be rescued a few weeks later. The next phase in Jason’s story begins in June 1993 and this time, she insists, she is going on her own terms, alone, from west to east. From her starting point at Fort Providence on the Mackenzie River, all goes well, and she reaches Paulatuk before autumn. In 1994, Jason paddles from Paulatuk to Gjoa, along a mere 1,500 miles of Arctic coast, thus completing the journey begun in 1991.
There is a remarkable contrast between the two phases of Jason’s narrative, and the difference addresses issues of gender, sexist constructions of identity, and the dominant discourse of adventure in the far North. No doubt Starkell has his version of events, but the fact remains that she completed the journey alone. Moreover, phase two has a relaxed quality and a warmth of observation absent from phase one. Jason provides historical and geographical information along the way and describes the people she met with respect and affection, but the presence that comes most to life in her narrative is the land itself. Although there is much in both of these books for the theorist of autobiography, or for those interested in northern adventure, especially by women, only Jason really captures the unique and dangerous beauty of the North, and she manages this by describing its impact upon her and her intimate response to it. While Hancock went North expressly to write about it, Jason went North to be there, even if she did, finally, need to put that being there in words.
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Books reviewed: Blatant Injustice: The Story of a Jewish Refugee from Nazi Germany Imprisoned in Britain and Canada during World War II by Ian Darragh and Walter W. Igersheimer and Aftershock: Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism by David Matas
- Performances by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Norman Bray in the Performance of his Life by Trevor Cole and On Human Nature: A Gathering Where Everything Flows by Kenneth Burke
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MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Women in the North. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 207 - 208)
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