Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin

by Ken McGoogan
328 pages,
ISBN: 0002000547

Kenojuak: The Life Story of an Inuit Artist [1998].

by Ansgar Walk
248 pages,
ISBN: 0921254954

The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World

by Hugh Brody
374 pages,
ISBN: 1550548069

Nitassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim their Homeland

by Marie Wadden
240 pages,
ISBN: 1550548956

The Complaints Department:A Northern Novel

by Susan Haley
298 pages,
ISBN: 1894031261

Post Your Opinion
Arctic Lessons
by Sherrill Grace

For centuries Europeans and Euro-North Americans have travelled to the Canadian North in search of wealth, exploration fame, physical and scientific challenge, sheer adventure, or escape and freedom. These travellers, usually men, have worked in the North for the Hudson Bay Company, or rival organizations, and, in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for the institutions of church, state, and industry. But if there is one thing these individuals have in common, apart from their non-native ethnicity and their going North at all, it is their compulsion to record their experience, most often to write about their personal encounters with the land and with indigenous northern peoples, and, to varying degrees, about their perception of what I would call (after Mary Louise Pratt) transculturation: the impact of their culture on native peoples and of native cultures on them.

Moreover, the stories produced by these travellers are almost always presented in the first person. They are profoundly auto/biographical, never more so than when they purport to be about the Other¨the Dene, Innu, Inuit, or Northern Cree¨or about another individual, contemporary or historical, whose biography is embedded in the autobiography but whose life story serves as the occasion for writing in the first place. This phenomenon is neither a new one nor a mere fad. Famous examples from the last century include books like Vilhjalmur Stefansson's The Friendly Arctic, Robert Flaherty's My Eskimo Friends, Mina Benson Hubbard's A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador, Diamond Jenness's People of the Twilight, Gontran de Poncins' Kabloona, Pierre Berton's The Mysterious North and Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat, John Moss's Enduring Dreams, Victoria Jason's Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak, and John Houston's Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. The list goes on and might well be extended to include art books like Toni Onley's Arctic or Recollecting: J. Dewey Soper's Arctic Watercolours.

In the latter half of the 20th century and now in the 21st century, this auto/biographical compulsion shows no sign of abating. If anything, it has increased and, in the process, become more complex, nuanced, and self-conscious. Although auto/biography, as Euro-Canadians know it, is not a common mode of expression among First Nations peoples, their life stories related in the first person, or in their photography and art, have begun to appear. I am thinking here of the photography of Peter Pitseolak in People From our Side, of Elizabeth Goudie's Woman of Labrador, of the three-generational narratives in Saqiyuq, of It's Like the Legend: Innu Women's Voices, of certain deeply personal stories in stone by Inuk sculptor Ooviloo Tunillie, and of the fictionalized auto/biography in Thomson Highway's stunning novel Kiss of the Fur Queen. Indeed, so-called fictional auto/biography, a mode by no means confined to northern stories, has proven a productive and fascinating way for contemporary artists to rediscover northern history, in events like the Klondike (think of Robert Kroetch's The Man from the Creeks), and through historical figures like Sir John Franklin, John Hornby, or the Mad Trapper of Rat River. Even individuals like Robert Flaherty, Tom Thomson, Glenn Gould, and Bill Barilko¨hardly true northerners¨have been filmed, photographed, painted, dramatized, and fictionalized as symbols of a Canadian national biography in which Canada is North.

A defiant Maniaten holds her protest sign outside the court-house in the fall of 1989. Her daughter and grandson are with her.
It is in this context of personal narrative and eye-witness memoir that I wish to place the five books under review here. Each one recounts and relies on a personal journey North. Each makes claims to truth, facts, dates, historical research or first-hand experience, testimonials, and the authority of a first-person perspective. And above all, in each text, each author insists that s/he is telling us something we need to learn. It is as if each author has gone North to bring back some vital knowledge, some truth or insight, some lesson that s/he feels obliged to share, that only s/he was privileged to experience, and thus only s/he can relate. I find an Ancient Mariner urgency to much of this testimony, a quality that is especially intense in Wadden and Brody, but that exists as well in the overtly fictional accounts of McGoogan and Haley.

Nitassinan, first published in 1991, is a strategically important and powerfully written account of journalist and filmmaker Marie Wadden's discovery of Labrador in the spring and summer of 1988. Wadden went to Sheshatshit, the small Innu village across from Northwest River at the western end of Hamilton Inlet to write a book about the Innu and their protests against jet bombers from the Goose Bay military base flying over their lands. "I decided," she explains, "to see for myself what was going on and sample the way of life the Innu treasure so highly." To see for herself meant travelling into the bush camps of the people, where she could experience the terror of low test flights and the joys of life on the land.

But Nitassinan is much more than Wadden's personal story, although it is the personal testimony, eye-witness account, and memoir qualities of her narrative that help her to reach across the cultural and linguistic divide that separates southern Canadians from the Innu. Nitassinan is the story of a people, their history, their exploitation, their losses and sufferings at the hands of the non-Innu who, since the nineteenth-century, have increasingly seen Labrador as fair game for development, a source of hydroelectric power, and most recently the exercise of military authority. The Innu¨Naskapi and Montagnais¨were not consulted about these developments, and, adding to the injury, the wealth or power generated by their land flowed south. The Innu remained poor. During their protests on the runways at Goose Bay, they were blockaded, arrested, and then sent to jail far from home. Photographs of heroic individuals like Maniaten with her sign¨ "Stop destroying our culture"¨Wadden's quotations from interviews, speeches, and letters, and her analysis of press coverage all contribute to her biography of a people and their struggle, against overwhelming odds, to reclaim their homeland.

Few books ever warrant reprinting, but this is surely one of them. This edition contains an eloquent Foreword by Peter Penashue, President of the Innu Nation, who asks all Canadians to pay attention, to help, and to remember the images on national television during the winter of 2000-01 of Innu children high on gasoline, malnourished, inadequately clothed against a Labrador winter, or burned to death when their drug caught fire. The despair of Davis Inlet should not be forgotten either. And these tragic situations, brought on by greed, exploitation, and interference, have not gone away¨the megaprojects at Voisey's Bay nickel mine and the Lower Churchill hydro development are being pushed ahead despite Innu protests. Like the 1990 NFB/Nexus documentary film Hunters and Bombers, Nitassinan is there to teach us about the consequences of southern aggression and about the rich, proud culture of the Innu who are still fighting for a way of life that southern Canadians do not know and therefore cannot appreciate. The lessons of this auto/biography, however, are urgent and empowering¨for the Innu and for anyone who reads this story.

John Rae meets Inuit with Franklin relics at Pelly Bay, from a painting by Charles Comfort
Hugh Brody, writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker (for example, with Marie Wadden on Hunters and Bombers), is probably best known as the author of Maps and Dreams (1988) and Living Arctic (1987). In this new book, The Other Side of Eden, Brody returns to the North to give us a deeply personal account of his experiences, from the early 70s to the present, among the Inuit of the eastern Arctic, the Dene in northern British Columbia and the Yukon, and the Innu. However, this is not a chronological recounting of things he saw and did. The narrative is deliberately fragmented; it takes its shape from vivid personal memories that rise to the surface of Brody's mind¨triggered by some seemingly small current event¨and then inspire the telling of a story from which we, like the remembering narrator, can learn important lessons about how the Other lives and about how we (westerners, southerners, Judeo-Christian inheritors of a biblical Eden) have transgressed. The result is a complex, postmodern form of historiography that acquires its power to reach, move, and teach a reader from its auto/biographical form.

Brody's decision to write this way is a brave and risky one. In order to get our attention, he has jettisoned the objectifying apparatus of scientific inquiry and turned, in the face of years of academic training (which teaches us to scorn the personal and subjective on the assumption that so-called objective methods of inquiry alone can access knowledge or truth), to memory, testimony, eye-witness accounts, shared stories and experiences, and his own life-story. I believe that this book and the creative impulses shaping it are rooted in Brody's personal identity as the son of Jewish parents wandering and exiled in England, and as a Jewish boy trained in Hebrew and the study of the Talmud (and thus in the power of language). When he openly confesses to this identity and then adds to this his professional identity as an anthropologist, trained in late-20th century methods to study the Other, he is able to see that what he is also studying is himself. It is from this crucial insight that all the lessons to be learned on the other side of Eden flow.

The key lesson of Brody's auto/biographical story is painfully simple and all too familiar. Western culture, from biblical times to the present, is based on a destructive, hierarchical set of binaries that asserts what Brody calls an agriculturalist ideology. This ideology, inscribed in the story of Cain and Abel, privileges farming over hunting, surplus production over subsistence, domination (of lands and peoples) over co-existence, male over female, and so on. In the Canadian context, the consequences are clear: southern Canada believes it has the right to conquer, exploit for its own uses, and develop the North; the indigenous northern peoples, who represent a hunting culture and ideology, are in the way, when they are acknowledged at all, and must be assimilated or pushed aside. Brody does recognize that he has set up his own binary here (and it is one that I find troubling because too simple), but he tries to move beyond that binary (farmer versus hunter) by demonstrating through his personal story how transculturation works: an understanding of his Other, whether Inuit, Dene, or Innu, has taught him not only about them but about himself, about the destructive dominant culture he represents, and about how urgently we must change ourselves.

By integrating life-stories, his own and those of his northern companions and friends, and framing them within the deadly binary of the Cain and Abel story, Brody tries to show us the value of the Inuit, Dene, and Innu ways of being, of their stories, histories, myths, and languages. He tries to dissolve that binary, to undermine it from within, by making the private public, by infiltrating objectivity with the subversive, truth-telling magic of personal memory. If we have had an impact on them, he says, they can have an impact on us¨transculturation will strengthen us all. It is a lesson full of optimism, an idealistic one to be sure, but one that Brody has constructed because he has been North, to the other side of Eden, and has come back to tell us a different story.

Ansgar Walk's Kenojuak is the first attempt to write this Inuk artist's biography, and one of the very few biographies of Inuit people to date. First published in Germany in 1998 and translated for Penumbra by Timothy Spence, this study is subtitled a "life story" (a point I shall return to), and it contains a series of truly splendid photographs, including two superb formal portrait photographs of Kenojuak and several colour reproductions of the artist's work. As a narrative, however, it leaves much to be desired. Walk spent time in Cape Dorset interviewing Kenojuak and others in the community, but his story of the artist is limited to a chronological description of events in her life interspersed with quotations from the interviews or from previously published statements, and with considerable paraphrase (and quotation) from Houston's Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. Kenojuak the woman, artist, and Inuk does not come to life in this narrative.

As biography, then, this book is disappointing. I can only presume that by calling the book a "life story," instead of "a biography," Walk was signalling his wish to distance himself from the practice of European biography and to position this story as partly his and partly Kenojuak's to tell. However, there is no indication in the text that this is, indeed, what he intended. He uses "we" and "us" throughout to refer to himself and his wife, and yet it is he alone who is identified as the author, and the photographer is not identified. Only at the end does Walk provide some glimpses into his role, thereby introducing himself¨his story of discovering Inuit art and Kenojuak in particular¨into the biographical narrative, but this autobiographical note, like the biography itself, is curiously flat and uninformative.

The problems with Kenojuak may stem, in part, from the vicissitudes of translation: Inuktitut to German, German to English. They may also be attributed to the significant cultural differences between Inuit and non-Inuit concepts of art, individuality, and life story. Kenojuak explains, in her own words, that her art is not narrative and is not about self-expression. What is it then? What does it mean to her? How should non-Inuit approach her work? In what ways is it part of a larger cultural process about which non-Inuit know very little? Who, finally, is this powerful little woman captured by the photographer, with her glasses at the end of her nose, her eyes intent on the image she is drawing in the Dorset Litho Shop? Or do we have enough, what really matters, by having her images to enjoy¨"Comparing Braids" (1993), "In Amongst the Birds" (1995), "Small Tundra Bird" (1996), or her familiar, colourful "Owl" (1969) for a Canadian stamp issued in 1993? Walk's story offers few answers.

The images, however, tell another, far more fascinating and complete life story of the woman¨in her kitchen, her living room (with her medals, or her family), out shopping, or working¨of the community of Dorset, the people, the Co-op, the way of life, and of the land (in all seasons), the land that shaped Kenojuak and inspires her images. And those two portraits, in which the photographer has caught the woman, the Inuk, and the artist with the artistry of a camera, are especially powerful. In these we see Kenojuak's face lit up in rich brown tones against a surrounding darkness, as if caught in the glow from a stone lamp. She is looking down, to the right, with a faint smile, or she is in full right profile with the glow outlining her wrinkled forehead, cheek, and quiet smile. Despite the familiarity of the western photographic and portrait traditions evoked by these images, Kenojuak remains apart, private, contemplative, serious, even mysterious. She withholds her self, as if to remind us that the story of a life will always elude us. And this surely is one of the most profound lessons of auto/biography.

The last two books I am considering move farther away from the documentary record and closer to the truths of fiction¨fictional biography and fictional recreation of actual lives. Both these fictions, however, rely in complex ways on the autobiographical experiences, interests, and compulsions of their creators. In Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan sets out to tell the real story of Dr John Rae, a man who, in McGoogan's eyes, has been maligned and neglected by history. In The Complaints Department, Susan Haley draws deeply on her own experiences of life in the Northwest Territories to depict the Dene struggle to maintain their identity (a struggle not unlike that of the Innu). McGoogan's tale is drawn from the historical record, from letters, diaries, and his own passionate desire to vindicate a hero; Haley's is a love story about survival, individual and cultural. McGoogan enters his story about the life of Rae to share his personal passion with us and to explain his own journey North; Haley also enters her story at the end, but somewhat coyly as the story-teller disguised as a fortune-teller who appeared in the story itself. And both fictions ask us to learn something new about the North, to question what we accept as fact, and to readjust our perspective on the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

I am glad to have Fatal Passage. Like McGoogan, I have long thought that John Rae has been poorly served by history and that someone should set the record straight. Rae, a Scot from the Orkney Islands trained as a physician before sailing to the Canadian Arctic in 1833 to join the Hudson Bay Company. Over the next twenty years he practised his profession but also became a knowledgeable Arctic traveller who understood, unlike most Europeans of his day, that to survive in the North meant learning the lessons of Indian and Inuit life and adapting to Arctic conditions. He became a skilled surveyor for the HBC, an intrepid explorer, and then, unfortunately for him, the man who both solved the mystery of Sir John Franklin's disappearance and sighted a navigable link through the Northwest Passage¨the link that had cost Franklin and his men their lives.

I say unfortunately because Rae was not thanked by the British Admiralty or Lady Jane Franklin for the news he brought back to England in 1854. Rae brought word¨based on testimony and eye-witness accounts of Inuit whom he trusted¨not only that Franklin's men were dead but that they had resorted to cannibalism in their final desperate hours. The English were outraged, none more so than Lady Jane and Charles Dickens, who did all he could to disprove the accounts by slandering the Inuit as lying savages and the Scots doctor as a fool to believe savages or as an unscrupulous adventurer who only wanted the reward. Rae's reputation never recovered from these attacks. Even today he is not recognized for his achievements in the North, quite apart from his news of the Franklin Expedition.

In order to tell Rae's story, McGoogan has combed the historical records, but he has also fabricated dialogue and biographical stories in an attempt to put flesh on the bones of John Rae. His text is illustrated as well. He reproduces historical paintings (many executed by artists who had never ventured anywhere near the Arctic), items from contemporary newspapers, images of Rae and of other protagonists in the story, quotations from Rae's letters, articles, and diaries, and, most moving of all, a lengthy quotation from a letter by his Canadian wife, Kate, who accompanied his remains to their final Orkney resting place. My favorite illustration is a painting by Canadian artist Charles Comfort showing Rae discussing Franklin relics with the Inuit; I especially like this image because, as we now know, thanks to David Woodman's excellent book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery (1991), John Rae was absolutely right to believe the testimony of the Inuit: cannibalism did occur on the Franklin Expedition and by 1854 they were long dead.

But I have my quarrels with this book. The dialogue put in Rae's mouth is often wooden, and the man himself does not come to life under McGoogan's eye. Either McGoogan should have pushed further and created a character of flesh and blood¨a truly fictional hero¨or he should have stuck to the documentary record and given us an impersonal biography. At the end of his narrative he seems to be plumping for the latter because he provides a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index, but there is one significant addition of a kind not found in traditional biography. In an Epilogue called "An Arctic Hommage," McGoogan describes his pilgrimage to King William Island to the original cairn erected by Rae in May of 1854 to mark his discovery of the final link in the Northwest Passage. "As I lay in my tent," McGoogan tells us, "I found myself marvelling anew at the injustice that had brought me to these rocky shores." But McGoogan has another marker with him, a plaque to commemorate and pay homage to John Rae, a plaque that, when raised on the Arctic landscape, complements and completes the story we have just read. By giving us this closing autobiographical reminder, McGoogan legitimizes his biography, not with the public, archival record but with a private, emotional testimonial. He has learned to pay homage to the greatest of Arctic explorers, and now, he insists, so must we.

The Complaints Department is by far the simplest of the books I am considering, and I say simplest for several reasons. It is not illustrated; it does not have an elegant dust-jacket; it appears to be a basic love story, and it does not, at first glance, seem to be offering any lessons. Haley's story is set in a remote Dene community in the Northwest Territories (a community like many small northern reserves and like the ones Haley knows first hand). It focuses upon two extended families, the Woodcutters and the McRaes. These two families will come together through the relationship between a ne'er-do-well Woodcutter son and a social-working McRae daughter, each of whom has suffered at the hands of white Canadians, survived broken marriages, and learned to reject the temptations of booze and assimilation.

By comparison with Nitassinan, The Other Side of Eden, or even Fatal Passage, this book seems light-hearted and humourous. And yet, the issues addressed by Wadden or Brody are also found here: these Dene are fighting for control of their lands; they are struggling with substance abuse, suicide, and challenges to their autonomy and traditional life-style. Their story does not include famous artists or historic discoveries, but it does include a realistic portrayal, despite the humour, of living conditions in a remote northern community where, as Wendy Lill reminded us in her play The Occupation of Heather Rose (1986), white officials fly in and out self-importantly but do nothing.

There are, I think, problems with this novel, but these arise more from the author's grasp of her narrative form and voice than from the subject she seeks to portray. Dialogue is often awkward and repetitive; events are too often insufficiently prepared for; character motivation is weak. I wish Haley had done more with her governing tropes of story-telling and testimony, narrative strategies that underlie the novel but are easy to miss. For example, the hero of the story, Robert Woodcutter, is a traditional Dene story-teller and at several key moments he launches into a story that will function in at least two ways: it will lift the reader/listener away from the world of ordinary events into the world of Dene mythology but it will also teach people how to connect and make sense of the ordinary by situating it within the miraculous or magical realm of dreams and visions. Whenever this happens, the narrator makes a casual allusion to a little green book, but this allusion is not a mere throwaway. The book we are holding in our hands as we read is just that¨a little journal-sized book in plain green cover, its only adornments being the gold letters of the title and the author's name and the imprint of a crescent moon.

Some reviewers have complained that The Complaints Department is dull to look at. But if they have missed the point it is because Haley has not made enough of this potential for self-reflexivity. She does bring herself into her narrative, when she confesses¨"I, as the author of this book . . . made it happen, and this story is only one of many I could tell."¨but she leaves this confession to the very last lines, almost as if it were an afterthought. And this is a shame because it is her own story-telling, her first-hand experience of Dene life, and her personal concern for transculturation that give her novel its authority and weight. Her autobiographical perspective is what allows her to create Robert Woodcutter and his story.

All caveats aside, these books provide important arctic lessons in a rich array of narrative modes. I continue to be amazed and delighted by the ways in which our writers and artists approach the North, and books are only one of the many ways in which this occurs. Books, however, unlike films or paintings or installations like Richard Prince's Aurora Borealis (first exhibited in September 2001), are readily available to anyone who takes the time to read. And these are books that should be read for what they tell us about the North, about the history and identity of the Canadian nation, about the indigenous peoples of the North, and about the possibilities of transculturation. Through first-hand experience, eye-witness account, personal testimony and confession, these authors show us not only what they saw and heard but also how they, as individuals from this side of Eden, feel about the North. And it is this intensely personal quality of auto/biography that makes these books at once so important and so accessible to us all. ˛

Sherrill Grace is Professor and Head of English at the University of British Columbia. She has published extensively on Canadian literature and culture, and her new book Canada and the Idea of North is available from McGill-Queen's University Press.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us