The Land of Feast & Famine

by Helge Ingstad, Eugene Gay-Tifft,
ISBN: 0773509119

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Brief Reviews - Non-fiction
by Martin Dowding

HELGE INGSTAD's In the Land of Feast and Famine (McGill-Queen's, 364 pages, $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper) depicts the life of the last Native and white hunters and trappers before air travel brought the vast expanse of Canada's Northwest Territories into the 20th century. In order to realize a life-long dream, Ingstad left his successful law practice in Norway in the mid- 1920s and moved to the Canadian far North. First published in the 1930s, In the Land of Feast and Famine is the highly detailed autobiographical narrative of his four years hunting caribou and beaver northeast of Great Slave Lake and living with his sled dogs, who seem to have been his best friends by far.

It isn't that Ingstad doesn't like other people (unless going to the North is evidence of a wish to avoid them); he just rarely sees anyone else. The kind of community he describes when he is among people is based on mutual aid and co-operation derived from necessity and the goodwill of his fellow trappers. And while Ingstad clearly doesn't approve of or understand the behaviour of some of the Natives, he does respect their generosity and ingenuity.

The caribou hunt is essential to his story. The massive herds appear out of nowhere after a long wait. Ingstad describes the fear of starvation and how it vanishes in the exhilaration caused by the appearance of the first caribou. He takes part in the sometimes reckless chase and kill; and with great affection recalls the fraternity of white trappers and hunters, who were clearly a brotherhood for initiates only. Ingstad modestly declines to provide details, however, about the trappers' celebratory rituals after the season, which he says are unfit for print.

He also describes the devastating effects that the white man's diseases have on the Natives. He himself becomes ill, but does not suffer as badly as his Native counterparts; he survives to see the spring, and the thaw that brings the hunt to a close. The seasons and activities Ingstad describes, if limited in variety, are so microscopically detailed that In the Land of Feast and Famine impresses as a fascinating and very readable volume.


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