Monday, July 15, 2013

W28: Land of the Long Day

From the Biblio-Mat this week came a maroon book that suggested a novel. In the suffocating humidity of the Toronto summer, it turned out to be a welcome psychological escape.

Doubled as a fan a few times.
Clothbound with gold lettering, Land of the Long Day, published in 1956, was a 257 page recounting of author Doug Wilkinson’s experiment to live with the Inuit on Baffin Island. While non-descript, upon opening it did contain an interesting surprise – sandwiched between the cover and the first page was a piece of the original spine of the dustjacket. In addition to gleaning some insight on what the cover once looked like, it also functioned as a fitting bookmark.

24 hours long, if you can believe it.
As I write this post it is close to midnight and still 30 degrees Celsius. Reading about the frigid north in this weather created more than a twinge of envy for the author dealing with the cold for the Canadian mentality has always seemed to be wishing for winter in the summer and pining for summer in the winter. Thankfully, the book had more to offer than descriptions of frigid landscapes. It also had pictures.

Winter was harsh, but summer was in tents! (Sorry.)
Supplemented by both colour and black and white photographs, Land of the Long Day revealed itself to be much more interesting than first thought. Beginning in media res with a mysterious narrator living with an equally mysterious Inuit family, the first chapter dove right into a seal hunt, describing in vivid detail how one would track and harpoon a seal. While it wasn’t thrilling in the sense that the narrator was ever in danger, the prose was well written enough to stir up excitement on whether he would get the seal or not. Suffice to say, I am now confident that if I were stranded in the arctic with a harpoon and a seal, I would not starve to death.

Chapter two introduced what the framework of the story was. Up until this point I had assumed that this was fiction, however, the narrator clarified that it was actually a research piece. Developing a curiosity about life in Northern Canada, Wilkinson decided to live with an Inuit family for a year to document their world. My first thought at this point, of course, was that it would be the written equivalent of Nanook of the North, however Wilkinson actually referenced the film midway through the chapter and stated that he intended to go deeper than superficial coverage, and indeed he succeeded.

Staying with a man named Idlouk and his family, Wilkinson adopted the lifestyle fully, participating in hunts and trading. Free of judgment and open to trying new things, it did feel like a research piece that presented events and knowledge as facts instead of spectacle. In addition to describing the Inuit culture, he goes on to explore the flora and fauna of the north, covering all the wildlife that they had seen and promptly killed.

Bear was pretty majestic, until they shot and ate it.
The most interesting subject covered, though, was the interaction between the Inuit and white society. At the time this book was written, the north wasn’t the hostile barren unknown it was a century ago and numerous posts had been set up. Even in the 50’s the Inuit were conflicted between embracing modern conveniences and keeping tradition, but most had already progressed to hunting with firearms and utilizing technological advances, acquired from fur trading, for more comfortable living.
Funny enough, a few weeks ago I read a Vice magazine article on a giant international fur auction that takes place in Ontario once a year. It was one of the few venues where you can purchase a polar bear pelt legally, starting at $10,000. The $5.00 per pelt asking price in the book seemed like a bargain, even with inflation taken into account.

One day this will prove to be useful.
A few terms that are not often used anymore, namely ‘eskimo’ and ‘primus’, dated the book a bit but overall it had a modern feel to it. Chalk it up to great writing to keep a reader engaged in information that had now become common knowledge taught in elementary schools.

Book rating: 8/10 (A history lesson wrapped in a fun read)

Random quote: “She is my friend, who has given me food and shelter on countless nights, has repaired boots and mitts torn on the hunt; but I wish she would die, for until she does no one with her is safe.” (The ice ain’t the only thing that’s cold…)

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