Thursday, May 2, 2013

White Heat

M. J. McGrath, you had me at berg tea.  The opening sentence of White Heat (Penguin, 2011) goes like this:  "As she set a chip of iceberg on the stove for tea, Edie Kiglatuk mulled over why it was that the hunting expedition she was leading had  been so spectacularly unsuccessful."  (1)  With that, I'm sucked into to the thoroughly unfamiliar but deeply interesting world of the Canadian High Arctic, where this story takes place.

Our Heroine, Edie Kiglatuk, is an Inuit hunting guide, based in the small and peacefully depressed town of Autisaq on Ellesmere Island.  One of her clients is killed on an expedition, and while she is not suspected of any wrongdoing, a series of deaths on another expedition, including that of a beloved stepson, undoes her to the point of having to find out what happened.  The story potters along for a while as no one listens to Edie, and she descends down her own private rabbit hole by falling off the wagon after two years of sobriety.  (She's not alone with her drinking history; most of the people in the town have some kind of substance abuse issue or history.)  The things that are getting people killed have to do with the region's natural resources, and with the history of guided hunting - Edie's great great great grandfather Welatok is actually central to the modern day story.  It's complicated by contemporary human nature: the local pols seem suspiciously cozy with some of the visitors, Edie has a difficult relationship with her former husband's former family, and damn, it is sunny all day for part of the story!  That would be enough to drive me around the bend.  Eventually Edie bugs the local copper, Derek Palliser (half-Inuit), enough that he starts to take her seriously, and together they resolve the story with some exciting hunter-trekker stuff.  

McGrath has written quite a bit of nonfiction, including a book about forced removal of Inuit to Ellesmere Island in the 1950s, so she knows from what she speaks.  The site descriptions, and careful attention to detail like hunting prep and gear, weather, light, snow quality all have a quiet authenticity.  And there's the language, which appears pretty much impossible to pronounce, but McGrath does not shy away from incorporating a lot of Inuktitut words, and includes a brief afterword explaining a bit more.  (No, they do not have 10,000 words for snow.)
qalunnat = clearly means some kind of white man, not from these parts
iquq = shit
qaksungaut = diamond
ui = husband
igunac = fermented walrus gut, a tasty snack when on a hunting expedition
and so on.  McGrath draws a clear line between the worldview of Inuit and that of everyone else, and that distinction is ultimately what makes the story so very interesting.  The story hangs on something that might have been discovered by a famous Arctic explorer of yore, who ultimately died on an expedition, and was suspected of - his reputation tainted by - rumors of cannibalism.  "[Edie had] read enough about the old white explorers to know that the prospect of cannibalism hung over them like some malevolent spectre.  To the Inuit, eating human flesh was merely the survival tool of last resort.  The most dishonourable thing an Inuk man with a family could do was to take the easy way out, to give up the struggle to provide for his loved ones, lie down and die.  That way he condemned his present and future family and brought shame on his ancestors.  In the qalunaat world, the opposite was true."  (72)  It is just a matter of course to survive in this incredibly harsh climate - there is not a lot of emotion expended on it, which makes the description of Edie's travels and travails all the more compelling.

About that walrus gut, this is not a book for the culinarily faint-hearted.  There is a lot of seal eaten in this story - stewed, fried, soup, etc. - and walrus in various guises.  And at times it is washed down with buckets of Canadian Mist.   If you're a tea fancier like myself, you'll like the follow-up to the berg note above:
"She poured the boiling berg water into a thermos containing qungik, which white people called Labrador tea, and set aside the rest for herself.  You had to travel more than three thousand kilometers south from Umingmak Nuna, Ellesmere Island, where they were now, to find qungik growing on the tundra, but for some reason southerners thought Labrador tea was more authentic, so it was what she always served to her hunting clients.  For herself, she preferred Soma brand English Breakfast, brewed with iceberg water, sweetened with plenty of sugar and enriched with a knob of seal blubber." (1)

And, this being the Arctic, it is cold.  "As he picked up speed, he felt first the freezing of his eyelashes, then the hairs in his nose.  Even with his snow goggles on, tiny ice boulders began to accrete in the corners of his eyes."   (53)  The nose-hair bit I've experienced, but not the eye-boulders, yikes.

There's another Edie Kiglatuk mystery out now, and I look forward to reading it.  Sometime in the summer, when it is really, really hot.

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