By any standard, the fiction of James Houston is a quixotic achievement. With his novels of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natives clashing with white outsiders, he often appears to lean deep into the escapist genre territory of, say, Donald Clayton Porter's interminable "White Indian" series. Houston, however, consistently marshals sufficient literary quality-particularly in narrative and description-that he usually interests a readership from beyond the continental divide that separates genre romance from other novels. Though all of his adult novels are resolutely stuck in the past, he has managed on occasion to address modern issues through allegory. In his first and still best novel, The White Dawn, Houston showed how an Inuit camp and its leader at the turn of the century were torn apart by the insidious influences of three rescued whalers. Its message of the destructiveness of Western civilization wonderfully fit the masochistic spirit of the early 1970s.
There was a similar intent in the more complicated Spirit Wrestler, which benefited from Houston's overlay of interesting gothic elements. But his novels since then, Eagle Song, Running West, and now The Ice Master, have had few pretensions beyond storytelling. Reviewers who were once quite generous with Houston have become increasingly restive about this trend. With no apology, he continues to use outmoded romantic conventions: thrilling action, polarized characterization, corny archaic dialogue, necromancy and superstition. It's as if there hadn't been much worth copying from literature since Sir Walter Scott.
This is very true of The Ice Master, which tells the story of a whaling expedition in 1875 from New London, Connecticut, aiming to winter over at the whaling station on Blacklead Island just off Baffin Island. Because of the appalling overkill by whalers in previous decades, there is an underlying touch of irony; the success of this mission is by no means guaranteed. The plentiful pods of whales have vanished. There is a sadsack atmosphere as two boats, including a leaky century-old tub, head off under a Yankee captain with the appropriately biblical name of Caleb Dunstan. Caleb is a poor man's Ahab, who shares Ahab's shadow of doom. He is presumably typical of his black-hearted Yankee kind.
Caleb possesses all the subtlety of a foghorn. He never says anything in a level voice. Rather, he snorts, yells, bellows, shouts, growls, or grunts. If he were a bit player like the grossly stereotyped cook Otto, who appends most excited comments with "Gott in Himmel," this would be easier to accept, but Caleb happens to be the central figure of the novel. His curmudgeonly one-dimensionality is at first so heavy-handed that it sabotages Houston's dramatic purpose when he tries to humanize Caleb later in the novel.
Caleb's rival, and the major source of his initial irritation, is the ice master (a captain with experience sailing in ice floes) called Thomas Finn, who takes over the second ancient boat. At the whaling station, Finn establishes himself by building his own little house to match that of Caleb. This makes him the second of princes over a tiny fiefdom of a few dozen whalers and Inuit who come to assist with winter living and hunting. Like so many similar characters in Houston's novels, Finn is a reasonable mediator who offsets the crushing effects of a brassy boor like Caleb. He tries to understand the Inuit and when winter comes, he eagerly goes out on the land. Inevitably he acquires a young native mistress called Pia, who tends his house and meekly shares his sleeping bag. Like the stereotype of a Japanese wife, Pia is a feminist's nightmare. She is more of an appliance than a person. She sweeps, smiles, and keeps Finn reliably warm at night.
Not so is her opposite, the giant female shaman Kowlee, whom Houston has plucked from Spirit Wrestler. She is capable of several kinds of terrifying magic. Because there are fewer and fewer whales, she generously calls forth three of them from the undersea goddess Sedna, who controls sea mammals. With a fair sprinkling of corny shamanistic yore, Houston shows that the whales are now more compliant and settled when they are killed. "The huge creature seemed to take both harpoons as easily as a pair of feathers, and because they quietly obeyed the Inuit rules, the huge fish's soul departed quickly and almost without a struggle." When Caleb goes beyond Kowlee's limit of three whales, he is preparing his own disaster. If this is a nod towards allegory, it's very faint. Houston mostly seems to want to colour a story that has thus far largely involved the adolescent shenanigans and quarrels of the whalers. Given the fact that there are no previous gothic elements in the story, the legerdemain is artificial. It is certainly too much to ask a reader to believe that there is a direct connection between supernatural wrath instigated by Kowlee in the north and a final catastrophe much later in the south. Local deities do not have international powers.
Once the dark business is done, the novel changes course yet again and slides towards a sunshiny Hollywood conclusion. The battered Finn, now hailed as an American hero for saving the day, is plucked out of the obscurity to become a sleekly dressed captain of the Eagle Packet Line. He of course gets his girl. The Horatio Alger echoes here strongly suggest that Houston has veered a bit too dangerously close to the boyish resolutions of his own juveniles. Like the novel itself, the heroic conclusion is locked, without any hint of irony, in the mindset of another century.
John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.