Let the public rest assured: when a forty-plus-year-old novel is totally forgotten and hard to find, there’s a reason for that.
Arctic: a novel is a 434-page book published by McClelland and Stewart in 1976. Its author is Finn Schultz-Lorentzen, who on the book jacket claims to be a member of “an old and distinguished Greenland family” and a former civil servant in Canada’s North.
The book opens with Qimmiqjuak, a self-declared “inungmarik, a real Eskimo”, who has a nice new house but no tobacco, sugar or tea, and realizes he must go to the welfare office or, better, he thinks, to the Bay man, to ask for a loan.
The character is soon dropped in favour of a series of extremely testy self-serving bureaucrats hating their situation, and each other, unreservedly.
As for plot: mid-way through, a young Inuk is assigned to travel to communities to explain that people must now elect their own councils. We later learn that this man is estranged from his father, who simply didn’t recognize him as his son when he returned from medical treatment in the south. Promising.
But this plot fizzles among the continual parade of new characters. A set of tourists arrive, a social worker, a school principal. Each is corrupt in their own way; all are desperately unhappy. Fall merges into winter.
It’s hard to tease out the social commentary from the general racism and sexism of the time.
“Three work-garbed Eskimos at a nearby table grew boisterous. A young girl with them laughed shrilly. She wore a pink blouse. Its several undone buttons opened up for surprisingly saggy evidence that she might better had declared inadmissible — or at least supported with a brassiere.”
Sexism in 1976 was not subtle. Nor was the racism, which is truly shocking.
Actually, nothing is subtle in this book. “Blast, he thought, that’s what happens when modern conceptions of social justice turn old customs obsolete.”
The writing, if that example isn’t enough, is also terrible. This from page two: “From the doorway, she darted her contempt into Qimmiqjuak’s dawning awareness.” Liberal use of exclamation points, in my book, is not always a bad thing, but it is definitively so here. “Damn that Cliff! Did he think he owned the Eskimos?”
The seasons turn.
I read on, only to find out what could possibly keep this going. That, and I wanted to surprise the woman at the N.W.T. Archives who looked skeptical when, closing the book halfway through, I told her I’d be back.
Near the end, there is, finally, a search and rescue that ratchets up a bit of tension, but not much. The white people conducting the search couldn’t care less if they find the two missing Inuit. In fact, one of them, invited to come aboard the plane as a spotter, regrets that she forgot her glasses so she could enjoy the view. When they do find two men on the ice, it takes them an eternity to determine they’re the wrong ones.
There’s also the matter of Qimmiqjuak’s sick child who is medevaced too late and who dies aboard the plane with an indifferent doctor and no parent in sight. This is damning social commentary, made more damning when the parents receive a mysterious package in the mail, “a cardboard box wrapped in plain brown paper held together with scotch tape,” that contains — without warning or ceremony — the body of their small boy.
[Haunting thought: the North in the early 1970s really was as callous and indifferent and beastly to Inuit as this book suggests. And in contrast to the big evils — the TB ships, the relocations, residential schools — that’s something that will never be fixed, or reversed or even addressed in any real way. Good God!]
These terrible, tragic scenes manage to linger a little. There has to be a reason for this book, one thinks. Shortly afterwards, Qimmiqjuak finds himself with a loaded rifle pointed at several key bureaucrats.
But it’s too late. In the fog of bad writing, lost threads and unreadable dialogue, we’ve forgotten who the bureaucrats are, or don’t care, and when the gun goes off, it’s really this book that one wishes was the main casualty.