This seriously good book had me in its grasp from start to finish, until I learned some troublesome facts that made me question part of its power.
Let’s start with the good parts first because this is an amazing memoir that takes us from the author’s childhood on the Quebec taiga to a theatre of war halfway around the world.
Eddy Weetaltuk was born in 1932 into what he describes as the “seven years of famine,” an unusually difficult period for living off the land. He remembers going three days at a time without food and learning to hide his hunger “to spare Mother the despair.”
“It is likely that my long adventures around the world are the result of my desire to free myself from the risk of starvation and poverty.”
In fact, Weetaltuk seems to have been born with that burning desire to see more of the world that some people have. It drives him to succeed at the St. Theresa School in Chisasibi where he lives for eleven years, and eventually to sign up with the army during the Korean war.
As if this dramatic background weren’t enough, Weetaltuk knows how to tell a good story. I want to quote almost everything in this book. Here’s Weetaltuk after describing a close shave with a piano that crashes off a stage during a storm on board the ship that’s taking him to Europe.
“What a strange end it would have been for an Eskimo to be crushed by a piano in the middle of the Atlantic! Finally, after a long journey we arrived at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. While waiting to disembark, we had a roll call. When Captain Potts called my name, he asked if I could speak German. I answered:
—No, sir, but I will learn.
—I don’t doubt that, Private, since I was told you already speak four languages [English, French, Inuttitut and Cree]. We’ll count on you to show the Germans that Canadians are good boys and can learn their language well and quick.
I was thinking it would have been a pity to be crushed by a piano before getting that compliment from an officer.
As a war memoir, this book would rank among the most joyful. It’s filled with death, close calls and soldierly escapades involving women, booze and, when things go a bit too far, military prison. Throughout, Weetaltuk takes a warm, wondering tone.
He’s thoughtful too. “The Japanese people definitely amazed me; they knew all about our longings for sinful pleasures and were exploiting our weaknesses with so much elegance.” [The italics are mine.]
One of the propulsive features of this story is Weetaltuk’s assertion that Inuit were not allowed to leave the North, or join the Canadian military or leave the country. While reading, I made a note to double check whether that was true, but a few pages on (unable to put this book down) I was experiencing a growing sense of outrage. I’m not a total rookie to the history of the North, but it was possible I just didn’t know about this, and if so, that means we had even more of an apartheid state than I was aware of, and that I myself had lived in a bantustan designed to separate us. All of Arctic history in Canada was being cast in a new light, and I was rooting for Weetaltuk in an even deeper way.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, my dad likes to say.
But we’ve now arrived at those troublesome facts, because there never was a rule that Inuit couldn’t leave the North, or the country, or join the military.
When I first picked up this book, I resented the inclusion of a lengthy prologue, a complex introduction and a full-on academic essay at the back. Can this book not simply speak for itself, I thought? Next thought: how embarrassing for these publishers!
But after finishing this book, the question of these prohibitions were on my mind so I turned to the introduction, where it was immediately addressed by Thibault Martin, who worked closely with Weetaltuk to polish the manuscript first drafted in 1974. Martin concludes that Weetaltuk believed these prohibitions to be true, and that since the evidence all around him (the relocations, the hydroelectric project then re-making James Bay) justified this belief, it should stay.
Er, ye-ees. I can kinda see that.
Not to mention that it’s integral to the story.
In fact, it’s kind of crucial.
Weetaltuk signs up for the army using a fake name, and several times, references his secret identity and the need to keep it that way. It’s a vulnerability that brings us closer to him; we want him to succeed against these evil Canadians!
Weetaltuk first drafted this memoir in 1974. A publishable draft wasn’t completed until 2005, with Weetaltuk dying shortly afterwards. The book’s long journey to publication speaks volumes about the Canadian institutions that failed to see its value. But it also gave Weetaltuk ample time to clarify his misconception.
Several times in this book, the older Weetaltuk inserts himself to talk about something that’s coming next, or that he’ll later realize. So why didn’t he ever address this misunderstanding?
A good place to include it would have been right before this scene, when Weetaltuk the combat veteran has made his way home to Kuujjuarapik.
“One night Father Ostan invited me to the Great Whale ‘Social Club,’ a place where the local White people would gather to watch movies and have a drink. Indians and Inuit were not accepted. I was allowed to go in only because I accompanied Father Osten; however, when he ordered a beer for me, the bartender refused to serve him, saying that Eskimos were not allowed to drink alcohol. The father tried to object, saying that to refuse a drink to a service man who had just put his life at risk for his country was not right, but the barman did not change his mind. Upset, the father gave me his beer and told me to drink it, whatever people would say.”
From the Tundra to the Trenches
By Eddy Weetaltuk
University of Manitoba Press, First Voices First Texts, 2016