In Those Days: Collected Writings
on Arctic History
By Kenn Harper
$19.95; 171 pages
I generally bring a good dose of skepticism to works about Inuit and the Arctic, but Kenn Harper always delivers the genuine goods. You can be sure that any work with his name on it is thoroughly researched, carefully composed and triple checked for errors.
A fluent Inuktitut speaker, Harper has spent his entire adult life tracking down obscure facts, exposing falsities and delighting in the complexity of a culture so unlike the one he was born into.
“In Those Days” is a collection of profiles of Inuit from across the circumpolar world, many of them with a Newfoundland and Labrador connection. The Labradorians include Mikak, who helped found the Moravian church in this part of the world; Simon Gibbons, from Forteau, who became the first Inuk to be ordained a minister; and John Shiwak, the Inuit sniper who died at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917.
Harper also includes profiles of the Labrador Inuit who went to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Foremost of these is Nancy Columbia, who was born at the Fair and grew up to be a movie star, and poor little “Prince” Pomiuk, who was crippled in a fall there and later became one of Grenfell’s chief means of raising money for the hospital at Battle Harbour.
Kallihirua, also called Erasmus York, wasn’t a Labradorian but a Greenlander. He came to Newfoundland via England in 1854 to study theology prior to setting off on a mission to Labrador with the Anglican Bishop. Sadly, he caught a chill and died in St. John’s the following summer.
Greenlanders Taqulittuq and Ebierbing, called Hannah and Joe in English, were more fortunate.
Shipwrecked on an ice floe off the coast of Greenland, they and their companions drifted in the North Atlantic for six months, covering 1,500 miles.
After terrible privation, they were rescued by Capt. Isaac Bartlett and the men of the sealing vessel Tigress.
Another of Harper’s profiles is of Makpi, who as a child was one of the survivors of the wreck of the Karluk. She was just two years old when Bartlett and the Inuit hunter Kataktovik left her and the rest of their party at Wrangle Island and made their epic journey across to Siberia. It was six months before the captain was able to find a ship to rescue them. The photo of Makpi on the cover of the book was taken in Nome after their return and there’s not a feather out of her. She lived to be 97.
All the profiles of Inuit in this collection are interesting and the illustrations Harper has collected are first-rate. “In Those Days” is listed as “Book 1” so presumably we have more good reading to look forward to.
Facing the Sea: Lightkeepers and their Families
By Harold Chubbs and Wade Kearley
$34.95; 132 pages
I put off reading “Facing the Sea” because I thought it would be yet another interminable listing of ocean wrecks and tragedies, but I should have known better. Wade Kearley’s lovely book “Here’s the Catch” seems to have set the bar high for him and he has managed to come up to that excellent standard again.
The original stories in “Facing the Sea” were collected by Harold Chubbs during his 30-year career with the Canadian Coast Guard. With funding from the Coast Guard’s Alumni Association, Flanker Press was able to hire Kearley to rework the stories and match them up with perfectly gorgeous photographs and clear maps.
Although some of the stories do involve the usual lighthouse rescues, most of the narratives in “Facing the Sea” are about more personal challenges confronted by the lightkeepers, their wives and children. They all had to face not just the weather, but illness, isolation, and even strained relationships on the remote stations.
Many of these stories aren’t particularly old, either.
Well into the 80s, lightkeepers were still dealing with poor communication and unreliable transportation.
Helicopters and small planes were sometimes available, but in their absence lightkeepers used small boats, horses, ATVs, dog teams and skidoos to move people and supplies.
Although basic necessities were brought in by sea once a year, most of the lighkeepers hunted, fished, gardened and trapped to supplement their food supplies and their incomes, so it’s not surprising that they were subject to frequent, often fatal, accidents.
Lighthouse people drove or fell off cliffs, had guns explode in their faces and appendices explode in their bellies, and of course both adults and children occasionally fell into the freezing North Atlantic.
Kearley goes over the top a bit sometimes, trying to milk as much pathos out of these situations as possible. He tends to maintain tension by employing cliffhanger tactics (“Would the storm get worse? Would the wind change again? Would the children make it off this rock alive?”) However, his account of an outing by a family from St. Pierre that resulted in the death of a six year old was so simply and movingly told that I had to struggle to finish reading it.
The photos of the light stations are very dramatic — they all look so isolated and inaccessible, each one more desolate than the last.
And yet, lightkeeping was a family business, almost always handed from father to son, or in a few cases to wives, and the life must have created strong bonds between brothers and sisters, cousins and in-laws.
Kudos to Harold Chubbs for saving these very personal and private stories, and he is to be commended for having the good sense to look to a sound professional writer to polish them up and present them at their best.
Except for the dead babies, I enjoyed every minute I spent with this book.
Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.” Her column returns April 19.