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There is a feeling that you have after reading this book that is not easy to describe. Pretend you lost your sight and are standing on a very cold windy busy corner with only the rays of a slight winter sun to warm you. Listen to what you hear but usually ignore. Hear the wind displaced by the passing cars. With the sun, the sound is like the ocean waves and wind at the beach. You hear footsteps as they move toward you and away. Time and other distractions melt away. You may actually feel more alive, even as the world becomes a cold, desolate place.

Layer this feeling with the brilliant white and blue light reflecting off the ice and snow on the extremely cold and dry Arctic tundra and glacial erratic. No life save for mosquitos and one hare.  Surround it with the Inuktitut language and Inuk culture of the Northeastern Canada and you have been transported to a very foreign world.

This is the soul of this novel although it starts in 1980 Tettnang, Germany and ends in Toronto, Canada. Baffin Island is the largest island in the Arctic archipelago and sixth largest island in the world. In the north the Inuvialuk dialect is spoken and in the south the Qikiqtaaluk nigiani dialect. It is in south where Heinrich, the principal character, goes to hike for two weeks. It was not his original intent. He had intended to follow the path of the 18th century British explorer Samuel Hearne who traveled overland from Fort Prince of Wales on Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean  (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38404/38404-h/38404-h.htm ). He had read his diary and was his hero. Diaries are important, because the story is narrated by an unnamed archivist captivated by reading the Heinrich’s thin diary while hiking and is in search of him. Heinrich’s sister Inge, an asocial suicidal teenager, is immersed in language and convinces Heinrich, whose is only slightly exposed from his shell, to go to Canada to hike. Her passion at the time was the Inuktitut language. Hoping to go with a Canadian companion who he met while working the hops fields of Tettnang, his plans are waylaid when the companion does not go. Heinrich travels from the Baffin capital Iqaluit (on Frobisher Bay) to Auyuittuq National Park on the Cumberland Peninsula, past Mount Thor and Mount Asgard (the home of the gods in Norse mythology) along the Weasel River to Pangnirtung. Auyuittuq is the land that never melts. For a view from Mount Asgard see http://www.summitpost.org/this-is-a-view-looking-out/42154/c-152334 . Upon reaching Pangnirtung he realizes that 30 years have past, but that he has not aged. He boards with two Inuk women, grandmother, Sarah, and granddaughter, Vicki, while he earns money to go to Toronto to try to find his sister.

The relationship between Sarah, Vicki and Heinrich exclusive of the time on the tundra, are the best parts of the book. For those who may recall a TV show called Northern Exposure, which aired in the U.S. in the early 1990s, the women remind me of the undemonstrative Alaskan native Marilyn Whirlwind whose words and imperturbable demeanor were in contrast to Mainland loquaciousness. Not knowing Inuk culture, it is unclear to me if they are representative, or a caricature. It is a culture of sharing, at times literalness, and of resignation and acceptance.

“What was Pangnirtung like thirty years ago, Sarah? I maybe walked by you on the road, perhaps on my way to the parks office? I was preparing for my long hike. Maybe you saw me get in this fishing boat to go up the fiord? Are you sure you didn’t see me?

“I dunno.”

“But you were here. What was Pangnirtung like? I passed through so fast. How was it different from now?

“Ask someone else I don’t know.”

Without another word, Sarah walked down the hallway, went into her bedroom and closed the door. A qallunaaq, she thought, as she rested on her bed, is someone who demands answers, but who doesn’t want the answers that you give.”

The Inuit culture has changed and is changing. The novel highlights the historically poor treatment of the Inuit population by Canadians, who like Americans with Native Americans, sought to marginalize and assimilate them at the expense of their culture.

The “appendix” to the novel is most captivating. It is presumably a fictionalized account of a November 24, 2010 event captured in the Globe and Mail when a fox and stag followed a young man, not unlike Heinrich, through the streets of Toronto, presumably to return him to the wild. The author uses a version of the fox wife Inuit folktale in one of Heinrich’s dreams. I preferred this magical realism to the thirty year time warp vehicle. For me, the latter was a distraction from the feel of the rest of the book.

I think the author Martha Baillie is an excellent writer who will produce more great literature.  Although thus far she plows the Canadian fields for her books, she has the curiosity, is inventive and does the research as better writers do. Her first novel “The Incident Report” involved a modern-day Rigoletto bent on protecting a young librarian in a Toronto library who he imagines is his daughter. It was long-listed for the Giller Prize. This novel made the Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2014 list.

Ms. Baillie is an author you should pay attention to and this is a novel to read.

It was published by Tin House Books a well-regarded small press whose website is  http://www.tinhouse.com/books/. It was also published in Canada by Pedlar Press whose website is http://www.pedlarpress.com/. The author credits editors Meg Storey of Tin House and Beth Follet of Pedlar Press in her acknowledgements.

 

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