I’m weirdly fascinated by this book. More by its existence than its actual contents.
Most Arctic memoirs concern, to at least some degree, people’s working lives. They’re written by nurses, doctors, teachers, pilots, Hudson Bay clerks and RCMP officers. Georgia, in her 1982 memoir, spends most of her time reading and spying on neighbours. When she’s feeling energetic, she packs a bag and stands by, ready to jump aboard any passing komatiq or canoe. She lives alone, exclusively, and is known locally as Nayanguaq, “one who lives like a nun.”
“Some of the whites in Igloolik remind me of Americans I knew in Japan who saw the country from the bar-room window,” Georgia writes, suggesting she lived in Japan at one point. Little else is known about her, in spite of this book, so I’ll recount the scant details available.
Georgia first moved to Repulse Bay to work with the Roman Catholic missionaries. She later moved to Igloolik, occupying Northern Low Rental House #14 and holding part-time gigs all over town — cooking at the Transient Centre, taking X-Rays of potential TB cases, selling cookies and treats she bakes at home.
She goes by her first name only because she dropped her last name in the 1970s to protest Project Surname, which was actively applying last names to Inuit to replace the Eskimo disc numbers still in circulation. Georgia disliked the idea of people getting last names because the government said they should.
That gives you some idea of her determination, which emerges periodically in this book when she gets herself into a boating or camping situation that requires some endurance. It also demonstrates her strong distaste at being told what to do, or of caring in the least what anyone thinks.
She’s a good writer, direct and accurate. “Twice we stopped in the misty rain to thread our way through floating ice,” I find on a random page. The movement of a canoe reminds her of a horse on a tether. “In slow motion she runs to the end of the slack, then her head jerks back, she rears a bit and runs off the other way until once more checked by the end of the line.”
Georgia has an eye for a pithy quote. “We are glad to see you visiting the North,” she hears the head of a hunters and trappers group tell a delegation from Ottawa, “because if we had to make laws in Ottawa, we would certainly visit the South.”
She digresses, but does not dwell, on the current “social situation,” remaining tactful and determinedly non-judgmental at all times. “It is light by 4:00 AM now, a fact I ordinarily would not know, but a neighbour was drinking the other night and his wife took refuge with me at 3:00 AM. We watched the sky pinken until by four o’clock it was light.”
She also recounts relations between Inuit and nurses, or Inuit and teachers, or Inuit and people enforcing hunting laws, aware of but not relishing her unique position as someone sympathetic to each side (though more to the Inuit, if pressed).
All that to say, she paints a pretty good picture of Igloolik and Repulse in the early 1980s.
But the question remains: what is she doing there? Many people who go north fall under its spell and find it impossible to leave, or have nowhere to go back to, but Georgia claims to stay in touch with her family. She has no work or partner anchoring her. Why does she stay?
I first heard about Georgia from a CBC colleague who went to Igloolik and asked her these questions point blank. “I was brought up as a loner. I have my books. I can’t really explain it,” she said.
I suppose if you want to live a quiet life, what better place to be than Igloolik, where you’re almost guaranteed to become a spectator to something interesting?
The Nunatsiaq News reporter Jane George describes what might be the more typical reaction. She met Georgia while reporting in Igloolik in the late 1990s (and wrote about it on her blog, Siku Girl).
“Georgia suggested off-hand that I could stay in her house some day when she was out of Igloolik. But I was terrified by her generous offer and this otherwise pleasant encounter over tea — and I decided then that, no matter what would happen later on in my life, I would not end up alone in a dark, cold community again in January, far from my family.”
Georgia: An Arctic Diary
Hurtig Publishers Ltd., 1982