Saturday, March 10, 2012

Inuit Tales of Terror

Having heard about the publications of Inhabit Media a few months ago via an article in Quill & Quire, I eagerly awaited review copies of their new series of children's books based on Inuit tales and legends. When the package finally arrived, I was frankly dazzled by the array of beautifully illustrated books that spilled forth, particularly by Rachel Qitsualik's The Shadows that Rush Past, grippingly illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh and Larry MacDougall; as a longtime fan of Ms. Qitsualik's "Nunani" column in the Nunatsiaq News, I knew this would be a good one -- but the wealth of other, unexpected treasures was equally impressive.

Here at the Arctic Book Review we don't usually review many children's books, but these -- among the first Inuit-penned books of their kind -- seemed worthy of special mention. I've since read them, and sent several out to others of our reviewers, but wanted to give an overview of the series here, just to alert readers to the wealth of new and significant titles that are now available. And finally, a word of caution: as those who have read either traditional Inuit tales or the imaginative works of Inuit writers -- Larry Milliman's A Kayak Full of Ghosts and Alootook Ipellie's adult collection Arctic Dreams and Nightmares come to mind -- will know, these tales often have dark, or darkly comic twists, different but easily equal to the grimmest of Grimm's tales. If your kids like really scary books -- Stephen Gammell, for instance -- then I am certain they'll love these volumes. And, completely without persuasion or preaching, they will learn a few things about Inuit culture and history that they're unlikely to discover anywhere else.

The Shadows That Run Past is easily the best of the bunch, as I expected -- Ms. Qitsualik is a practiced storyteller, whose voice immediately takes readers into the circle of traditional narrative. Her version of the story of the Amautalik, a fearsome creature with an amaut made of caribou antlers who steals children, is particularly chilling, and is rightly featured on the cover. And yet I must confess that The Legend of the Fog, a terrifying odyssey of a hunter's taken prisoner by giants who refer to him simply as "food," gave me just as good a scare, with Cape Dorest elder Qaunaq Mikkigak's tale perfectly complemented by Joanne Schwartz's masterful full-page illustrations. The other two books, Marion Lewis's Kaugjagjuk and Sakiasi Qaunaq's The Orphan and the Polar Bear are both teaching tales about young boys struggling with the journey to manhood who receive vital help from natural spirits. Qaunaq's book is the more conventional of the two, as in it the young boy receives help from the polar bear spirit and returns to his band as a full-fledged hunter. And yet it is Kaugjagjuk, to my mind, which is the richer tale; here the boy shamed and mistreated by his tribe is taught harsh lessons by the spirit of the Moon; he indeed returns strengthened, but does not take up a place with his band, leaving them behind with a deep sense of shame at how they treated him. It's a strong story, but a good one, and although it might put some parents off, will give young readers a much more forceful understanding of the traditional Inuit worldview.

Inhabit Media, located in Iqaluit, has these and many more books available and in the works. They are finely written, brilliantly illustrated, and well-printed on durable stock to survive the many readings I am sure they will all have in the hands of any young readers lucky enough to get hold of them. We here at the ABR wish them all the best with their publishing endeavors.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Empty Balloon

The Ice Balloon, by Alec Wilkinson

NY: Alfred A. Knopf: 2012

233 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

Obsessed in equal measure with balloons and the North Pole, Salomon Andrée was responsible for one of the most eccentric of all assaults on the Pole. With two fellow Swedes, Nils Strindberg and Knud Fraenkel, Andrée set off from Dane Island in Svalbard in a large hydrogen-filled balloon, the Eagle. The date was July 14, 1897. Thirty-three years later, the remains of the three men (literal remains: Andrée's head and upper torso were missing) were found on White Island in northeastern Svalbard.Their journals and Strindberg's photographs, which turned out to be in somewhat better condition than the men themselves, detail an expedition that seemed doomed almost from the moment the Eagle's ballast bags were cut away.

Enter Alec Wilkinson, author of previous books about, among other subjects, moonshine and Pete Seeger. In The Ice Balloon, he takes on the Andrée balloon expedition with less than successful results. Wilkinson has never been closer to the Arctic than, it would seem, Stockholm, Sweden. This obliges him to recycle earlier accounts of Arctic expeditions, most of them in English (he admits that he doesn't know Swedish), or perpetuate the usual cliches about the unpleasantness of Arctic conditions. Unfortunately, a good many contemporary writers about the Arctic do the same thing: surf the web, read a batch of older texts, but for God's sake don't ever go to the Arctic.

Indeed, The Ice Balloon seems to consist primarily of recycled accounts of 19th century Arctic expeditions. As nearly as I can tell, the only common denominator among these expeditions is that they were all damnably uncomfortable. When Wilkinson finally gets around to describing the Andrée expedition, his laconic narrative style, derived from his tenure as a New Yorker staff writer, hardly does justice to the miseries of Andrée and his companions. Likewise, he never pursues or even contemplates certain important issues, such as what the drift of the Andrée expedition might indicate about polar currents. When Wilkinson does step out of his role as a recycler, he often ends up making mistakes. For example, Flora Island in Franz Josef Land is not "near" Svalbard, unless you consider 250 nautical miles "near."

The book devotes only a paragraph to discussing what killed Andrée and his companions. The most recent evidence suggests botulism, but Wilkinson dismisses this because he says that bacteria can't survive in very cold conditions. He's wrong, of course. They can survive in any condition -- the more extreme, the better. He dismisses another possibility, trichinosis, because the men don't refer to its symptoms in their journals. But if you're simply trying to survive from day to day, I dare say you're not going to commit every last one of your symptoms to your notebook. And with respect to trichinosis, Andrée and his men did in fact eat uncooked polar bear meat, an excellent way to get the parasitic Trichina worm in your system.

At its best, The Ice Balloon reads like Arctic Disasters 101. At its worst, it's as uninformed as any book I've read about the Arctic in quite a while. This is a pity, since there's a real need for a good book in English about the man who, upon being criticized for his recklessness by General Adolphus Greely, famously responded: "When something happened to your ships, how did you get back? I risk three lives in what you call a foolhardy attempt, and you risked how many? A shipload?"