Here’s an opening you probably won’t find in any book published after about 1995: “This book ends with the author, who is an Eskimo, on his way to a hospital for the criminally insane.” It goes on, “Anthony Apakark Thrasher has since been released from that institution but is not better and the bad things go on happening.”
Before starting this blog, I had no idea there were so many books written by Inuit. This one, in spite of that salacious opening, is a really good read.
Thrasher… Skid Row Eskimo was written on scraps of paper while its author sat in a Calgary jail awaiting trial for murder. Thrasher’s lawyer took charge of organizing what became hundreds of pages into a readable book, hauling in a reporter from the Calgary Herald to help verify what he could and boil it down into a readable story.
Following this preamble, we quickly encounter Thrasher himself, a warm, friendly voice who recalls an idyllic childhood in Paulatuk, N.W.T., filled with family, puppies, siblings and northern boyhood adventures (attempting to cook a cat in a wood stove is one). The picture quickly alters as his mother dies, his father moves the family to Tuktoyaktuk, and he himself is sent to school in Aklavik (the first chapter is called ‘Grade One Captive’).
School ends for Thrasher at age twelve when his dad suffers a debilitating stroke. He becomes a full-time hunter for his family, catching 450 muskrats in a season, stalking wolves and whales and grizzlies and watching beluga whales give birth in the wild. Slowly, this hard but wonderful life is threatened by the alcoholism of his dad and step-mother, who eventually throw him out in a drunken rage.
He gets a job as a reindeer herder, then on the Hudson Bay Company freighter, on the DEW Line and in the construction of the new town of Inuvik (he helps build the RCMP cells there, which he’ll later know intimately). Then life changes for good.
“One day this government man came up to me and asked if I wanted to go South and take a six-week course in how to drive machines.”
Thrasher flies to Edmonton with thirty other Inuit men destined for a camp where they’ll be taught to drive graders and service diesel power plants, but first they’re deposited in a cheap hotel on Edmonton’s Skid Row, with no money and no direction. Booze enters the picture and gets a tight grip on the author. Thrasher will return north, hold many jobs, even travel a bit, but alcoholism really never leaves him from this point on.
Thrasher seems to have gotten his storytelling gifts from his dad, who built suspense for his scary evening tales by making his kids run around the house three times (outside, in the dark) between frightening scenes. He relishes a great story and his straightforward tone does not change when the canvas switches from great northern adventure to down and dirty urban grit, or real gems like this one:
Sometimes I would drink with people from very respectable families. There was a society lady who used to party with us. She had troubles at home with her husband. She stayed with me for a few days. And when she’d had enough, she made me go to a phone booth with her. She called her husband. She told him that the man who was taking care of her was going to take her home. He said he wanted to speak to me.
I took the phone and he said, “Okay, how much do I owe you?”
I couldn’t figure it out. Here was a man whose wife I had been shacked up with for almost a week and he was asking me how much money he owed me. Well, I was broke as usual, so I said ninety bucks. I didn’t think the guy would really pay but when I got her home — they lived away out on the northeast side of Edmonton — he was sitting on the front porch crying and had the money in his hand. She was happy to get home and he was happy to have her back.
Thrasher uses great simile too: “Elija Sidney and I tried to make our own mukluks. Elija’s were good but mine looked like two barges having a rough time in bad weather.”
He carries his gift for storytelling right into the Prince Albert Penitentiary (“Even the summer breeze knows enough to stay out of the P.A.P.”) and several other jails. In fact, I’d like to quote most of this book, but I’ll offer just one more paragraph, this about those jail cells in Inuvik:
They were built at about the same time the liquor store opened. It was as if they were getting ready for a big commercial enterprise. There were hardly any prisoners before the store but the day it opened, the six cells, the jail block floor, the hallway — all were littered with drunks — more than fifty of them. I saw a whole family locked up that night. Even the judge had to be led home.
Aside from the great storytelling, this book is amazing in capturing the great upheaval of northern life in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the rich, deep story of one man who lived through it.
Unfortunately, this book is hard to find. I read it at the Yellowknife Public Library, where I was not even allowed to check it out. But if you happen to find a copy, don’t hesitate. Read it!