Working the North
- Jamie Bastedo (Author)
Reaching North: A Celebration of the Sub-Arctic. Red Deer College Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pete Sarsfield (Author)
Running with the Caribou. Turnstone Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joanne Tompkins (Author)
Teaching in a Cold Windy Place. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Many recent publications about arctic experiences, such as Rudy Wiebe’s Playing Dead, John Moss’s Enduring Dreams, Victoria Jason’s Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak, and James Houston’s Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, are first-person narratives by individuals who went North on personal journeys in search of a challenge, an adventure, or private discoveries. These books are primarily autobiographical: whatever they may tell us about the North and indigenous peoples, they focus on the journeying/writing self; their narrative mode is meditative, philosophical, often deeply spiritual, and the central purpose is the writers’ discovery (or proving) of him/herself. This is not the case with the books under review here. Bastedo, Sarsfield, and Tompkins went North to work and to live. Inevitably, their perspectives are significantly different from those who go North seeking adventure, though adventure is a major component in their experiences.
Jamie Bastedo, who lives in Yellowknife, is a well-known CBC broadcaster, host of the CBC radio’s northern nature programs, a naturalist, environmental consultant, and writer on natural history and resource management. Pete Sarsfield is a medical doctor based in Kenora, northern Ontario, who practices general medicine as a community health physican across the Northwest Territories and eastern Arctic. Joanne Tompkins is a teacher who spent many years in Baffin Island communities before taking a position as school principal in one especially remote hamlet, where she spent four years bringing change to the practice of education in an Inuit community.
Reaching North is a collection of essays on aspects of northern ecology and on living and working in subarctic Canada, mostly in the vicinity of Yellowknife. Each essay began as a radio script for Bastedo’s nature series for CBC North, but each was further developed into a major study of its subject. The topics range from pursuit of the Northern Lights to coping with bugs, from the mysteries of snow to the ecology of fire, and from the winter life of beaver to the hazards of snowmobiles. Each essay is packed with historical, cultural, and natural information and all are presented in a fluent, popular style that reminds me of Lyn Hancock. Although nothing here is of what I would call classic essay calibre—the quality of writing one gets from Seton, Leacock, Woodcock, or MacLennan—there is much to learn about and enjoy, and each reader will have her favorites.
The essays I found most interesting were those on snow and fire. In "Snow Saga," BasLedÃ¼ describes Lhe research and passion of William Pruitt, a glaciologist whose special interest is in the animals that live and thrive under the snow during long northern winters. In the process of his field work, Pruitt learned the many Inuit terms for snow and, with the language, the subtle differences among types of snow. Pukak, for example, is a layer of warm, loose snow that provides a thermally stable environment for many small mammals which, like the pukak, are essential to boreal ecology. I guess I should have known this, though I did not know the term, but I did not; I quite simply had not bothered to wonder how voles, shrews, and mice survive under the snow during the harsh winters. And yet, without these little critters, an entire ecosystem would falter. To see life from the point of view of a tundra vole, says Bastedo, read Pruitt’s Wild Harmony: The Cycle of Life in the Northern Forest, and I, for one, will. "Footprint of Fire" is equally fascinating and informative, not least for Bastedo’s perspective on First Nations’ use of fire in forest management long before settler societies and remote central governments acquired vested interests in forestry. Fire, he reminds us, has always had an important and natural role to play in the wild.
My reaction to Running with the Caribou is more mixed. Parts of the book are truly eye-opening, but too much of it, at least for my liking, is spent on pseudo-philosophiz-ing. Sarsfield has constructed his book (it is not a sustained narrative) from brief, dated entries that resemble diary entries composed as miniature self-contained prose essays. The dating, however, is haphazard; we are jerked from Cambridge Bay in 1983 to Grand Lake, Labrador in 1976, and interspersed with these vignettes on arctic medical visits are sojourns in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and even Hong Kong. Where Sarsfield is at his best is in his descriptions of rescue missions or emergency medical flights. In these we see what it can be like to provide medical services to remote, isolalcd communities, where services are few, weather can ground your plane, and the medical staff must attempt to diagnose and treat an impossible array of diseases, accidents, and life problems.
To Sarsfield’s credit, he gives highest praise and full due to the remarkable nurses who carry out 90% of the health care in these arctic communities. His descriptions of their endurance, skill, and courage remind me of Betty Lee’s Lutiapik (1975), the astonishing story of Dorothy Knight’s years as a public health nurse in Lake Harbour. Living in the comfort of southern cities, where every imaginable service and specialist is available, it is almost impossible to imagine what the delivery of basic health means in an arctic setting. To find out, read the entry called "Necessary Evils" in which Sarsfield describes emergency flights into Gjoa Haven to airlift a man with serious head injuries to Yellowknife, then into Cambridge Bay in thick ice fog to see to an overdose patient. It’s team work—pilots, ground crews, nurses, doctors—and it’s dangerous.
Teaching in the Arctic may be less dangerous than delivering medical care by float plane, but it is no less challenging. As Joanne Tompkins points out in Teaching in a Cold and Windy Place, the challenges go to the very core of what we—white, urban, southern Canadians, that is—understand by the term education. Among the questions facing Tompkins were how to bring change to her small community, how to retain staff, how to train Inuit teachers, and above all how to make education meaningful in the Inuit context. Absolutely key to this larger endeavour was the incorporation of Inuktituk into the life of the school and into the curriculum. But achieving her goals only began there because both she and the southern-trained Qallunaaq (white) teachers could only change a dis-functional school setting by changing themselves. What she and the others had to learn was patience, patience with a completely different life-style and set of values and traditions. Hand in hand with learning patience went acknowledging "the universality of racism in our society" and working to overcome the conscious and unconscious racist beliefs permeating the educational system.
Despite the important contribution this book makes to educational theory and practice, Tompkins was, I think, aiming to do more. At the outset she speaks at length about the importance of story and the lessons of biography and she returns to this rhetoric of narrative at the end. Unfortunately, however, she completely loses sight of narrative through most of her account, which takes on the form of dissertation (albeit written in the first person), complete with citations and endnotes. I was disappointed by this book because it was not, finally, a story. And many opportunities for story are simply lost in the perceived need to wrap the text in the apparatus of scholarship. I want to know more about Manniq, the Inuk who was training to become a teacher but killed herself in Iqaluit. I want to know more about the individual children, the Catholic priest, and life on the land as Joanne experienced it. Above all, I want to know more about Joanne. The beginnings of her story lie in the anecdote she gives us about rocks and the Inuk elder who told the class that rocks are alive. Here is Tompkins’ donné for a story that will, to stay with Henry James’s dictum for a moment, show us what we need to see rather than preach at us about what we don’t know.
Although I cannot say that I found any great writing in these three books, I did find much of value and interest. All three writers know the Norths about which they write; all three are intrepid, generous human beings, which, in itself, gives much food for thought. But what I find especially refreshing about these three volumes is their direct approach to everyday realities, realities that disclose enthralling mysteries—of snow, fire, ice fog, and living rocks. These are not books about northern heroes, explorers, mad men, and ghosts; they are about northern Canada and its people as seen by southern Canadians who live and work in the North and have come to love and understand it. The map of this country changed on Î¹ April 1999 to include a new northern territory, and if we are to understand this new territory and its place within the larger country it will be by reading books by people like Bastedo, Sarsfield, and Tompkins.
- Economy and Art by Brent MacLaine
Books reviewed: The Master's Wife, Facsimile of 1939 by Sir Andrew Macphail and Ian Ross Robertson
- Lethal Chat by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: Brother Dumb by Sky Gilbert
- (Ap)praising Milton Acorn by Thomas O'Grady
Books reviewed: Out of This World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn by Chris Gudgeon, To Hear the Faint Bells by Milton Acorn and Gilda Mekler, and The Road to Charlottetown by Milton Acorn and Cedric Smith
- Feminists and Methods by Catherine Dauvergne
Books reviewed: Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement with the State in Australia and Canada by Louise Chappell and The Madwoman in the Academy: 43 Women Boldly Take on the Ivory Tower by Deborah Keahey and Deborah Schnitzer
- Ways of Going North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge and Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life--An Interpretation by Peter Larisey
MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Working the North. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 136 - 138)
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