Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reader's Diary #276- James Houston: Whiteout (FINISHED!)

When the CBC unveiled it's 7 Wonders of Canada recently (the real one, not the ones chosen by us mere peasants), I heard a lot of people complain that that Newfoundland and Labrador wasn't represented.

What about the Inuit? They used to Igloos those, didn't they? And the last I heard, there were still some Inuit in Northern Labrador.

It bothered me that the Inuit were being ignored by fellow Newfoundlanders with their griping. That sort of thing has gone on too long. It's also astounding how many southern Canadians I've met who have never heard of Nunavut.

But it also bothers me when people go too far the other way and put the Inuit, Newfoundlanders, or other cultures upon a pedestal. This is one of many problems I had with Whiteout. Of course, as is the fashion, not only are all the Inuit infallible bearers of profound wisdom, but white folk are also plagued with greed, insensitivity, ignorance, crankiness and you name it, as long as it's not good. I'm not saying I wanted Houston to spout racist comments, I'm saying that his presentation of "the perfect people" was annoying at best. I feel that for all the good intentions, positive stereotypes are only slightly better than negative ones. How many parties have I gone to and ruined because I couldn't play a damned note on the accordion?

Furthermore, the easy adjustment of protagonist Jon was laughable. Plagued with drug problems and from the city, Jon slides into his Northern life with relative ease. He makes one comment near the beginning that Frobisher Bay looks dirty and is shot down by a man who claims that years ago the Inuit needed to keep everything possible in order to survive and they still carry that tradition with them today. They keep broken Skidoos by their houses for instance, in case they need the spare parts. Because, as we all know, no Inuk ever has dared to litter. They respect the land, etc, etc.

Then Jon goes to Nanuvik, learns an amazing amount of Inuktitut, loves the taste of walrus and raw caribou, is able to spear fish in just two attempts and falls in love with a local girl. Plus, he never seems to long for home, think about T.V. (the town's only satellite has gone out), or miss his friends. Yes, it's a magical wondrous place and anyone who doesn't adjust must be close- minded, typical white folk. Shame on them if they miss their homes and don't like an unfamiliar food.

I'm not saying of course, that no white person has ever come here for the wrong reasons. Surely there are plenty of people who move North just for the money and complain about everything as long as they're here. But others come up with good intentions. Some adjust easily (though I doubt many transitions are as smooth as Jon's), and others realize they've gotten in over their heads. For this last group, is it fair to judge them for making a decision that turned out to be a mistake? Is it fair to judge them for realizing they miss their families? That they might be city people after all? That minus 50 is even colder than they imagined?

What's even worse about all of Houston's barely subtle preaching, is his reconstruction of the details at the end. Reflecting upon his year in Nunavik, Jon seemed to have learned openmindedness, growing to love the North over the course of the year. He began by fighting with his uncle and the principal for which he worked, but then he matured, learned Northern traditions and saw the error of his ways. Except...that's not the way it happened! Houston for some reason seemed to have forgotten, or hoped that we would have forgotten (because it was too much trouble to go back and edit), that the uncle and the principal were genuine jerks at the beginning. It wasn't at all through Jon's maturation that everyone was getting along at the end. It was because about half way through Houston decided to turn these characters' personalities almost 180 degrees, with hardly an explanation at all. Now they were kind, accepting, and sometimes even warm people. Jon was actually quite static in comparison!

The problems unfortunately don't end there. There were other storylines started but not elaborated upon, a cockamamie attempt at Inuit folklore with the introduction of a shaman character that just seemed tacked on, and I could go on.

Instead, I'll take a moment to talk about the markings in the margins of my copy. This book is taught in some highschools in Newfoundland (though after reading it, I question why), and I bought it at a secondhand bookstore there last year. Perhaps oddly, I look for books with markings and notes in the margins. Sometimes there's mere graffiti, which can be interesting in itself, but other times there are notes made by students (or by teachers). I usually enjoy seeing what others deemed important or noteworthy. However, the student that previously owned my copy seemed to have had no clue what he was doing! He merely underlined what I can only surmise as random sentences here and there, numbering each and every mark! 164 times he did this. No additional notes and no apparent connection between them. At first I thought he was underlining instances of Inuit customs, then I thought it was personality traits of Jon, then I gave up trying to decipher it. I have a theory that whenever the teacher walked by he underlined whatever passage was currently being read just to look attentive. Though this doesn't explain the numbers. Any ideas?

(Incidentally, Stefanie at So Many Books had a post last month called "How To Read A Book" that sparked a lot of interesting discussion about margin notes.)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Well the one good thing about this book is that it seems to have spawned a great label!

Maybe the underlining student was a wee bit OCD?

Happy Father's Day, John!

John Mutford said...

Thanks Barbara, I'm not sure why the Moxy Fruvous guy is a whole lot better than the Trooper guy though.

Good theory!

Thanks. The kids gave me a book and the first two seasons of the Office. Sweet!

Allison said...

I just got the first two seasons of The Office too.

Happy Father's Day!

John Mutford said...

Thanks Allison.

Anonymous said...

Heh. I enjoy previously owned books that have been marked in but sometimes I get distracted from the book trying to figure out, like you, why the person marked what they did. And then to number them too! I wonder if the person had a separate notebook and used the numbers to correspond to things in the notebook?