Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reader's Diary #316- Sheila Burnford: One Woman's Arctic

The saving grace of this book is a title that serves also as a disclaimer: it is One Woman's Arctic. Written by Sheila Burnford, of The Incredible Journey fame, it chronicles her time spent at Pond Inlet in Canada's Arctic back in the early 70s.

I doubt many Southerners, at least those who have never visited here, would have the same experiences reading this book. For me, it was impossible not to spend the entire time comparing it to the Arctic I've come to know since I moved here in 2001. Quite frankly Burnford's tale is VERY different than the experiences I've had.

The problem is that it's hard to say which version (hers or mine) is accurate. For one, Burnford's journeys took place in the early 70s; it is a gross understatement to say that the Arctic is vastly different than it was then. For that matter, I would venture to say that the whole world is a very different place. Furthermore, Burnford's experiences took place in Pond Inlet, while mine have predominantly been in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit. I've not yet had the opportunity to visit the place we simply refer to as "Pond", though if it's anything like the utopia she describes, I've been missing out.

For every difference I noted, I kept reminding myself of the the title. It was one woman's Arctic- it wasn't mine, it wasn't anyone else's, it was simply Sheila Burnford's impressions and observations. Yet for all the excuses or rationale I could muster, I still wasn't able to entirely trust her accuracy. For one, she rushed to conclusions and generalizations. The moment one Inuk did something nice for her, it was suddenly "true Eskimo hospitality." (This was written before the term Inuit had gained much popularity in the South.) Such all-encompassing conclusions marred the book from beginning to end and were in the predictable vein of Inuk-good, whiteman-bad. It's not that I wanted her to focus on the negative, for surely I've had a lot of wonderful experiences in the Arctic as well. Still, some moderation would have been nice. Furthermore as positive as the generalizations about the Inuit may have been, I don't think she does them any favours when she takes it to such an extreme as to even rationalize murder as an acceptable cultural practice. In describing the murder of Robert Janes, a white man who had some financial tanglings with a group of Inuit hunters in the early part of the 20th century, Burnford writes,
"...although there could be no doubt that it was a pre-conceived murder from the point of view of white justice, it was entirely within the framework of custom and common sense that had evolved of necessity among the Eskimos..."
I'm sure that there are plenty of Inuit that would say otherwise. I'm not arguing that Janes wasn't a shady character (he may or may not have been), but it seems to be Burnford's assertion that a shady Inuk would be out of the question. For as pleasant a light as she cast on the Inuit, she seemed unable to see them as individuals: Inuit with nary an Inuk among them.

Besides, I have trouble with anyone who claims to know a culture inside and out in such a short span. It was a little unclear how much time exactly she spent in Pond Inlet (Wikipedia says two summers, but there are definite mentions of spring and fall as well). At most she was there for two years. I've lived in Nunavut for nearly six years and I still don't claim to know the place. Heck, I spent 24 years in Newfoundland and I don't think I could define that culture adequately either.

It would have been nice to have had this story without the editorial.


Carrie K said...

The bending over backwards for another culture while dismissing ones own out of hand, pretty prevalent still. Hopefully more even handed standards today, but doubtful.

Southerners? I have a feeling I'd fall into that category.....

John Mutford said...

Carrie: Yes, you're a Southerner. Though friends in Ottawa think it's funny that they're called Southerners too. And since it's all relative, I guess I'm a Southerner to those in Pond Inlet (who are in turn Southerners to those in Grise Fiord, who are below those in Alert, who are below Santa).

raidergirl3 said...

My daughter and I started to read The Incredible Journey in the summer, but it didn't grab her enough to finish it. She may decide to go back to it.
I'm always impressed with how you can critically recognize what bugs about a book. Nice review.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: I read it when it when I was about 12. For some reason at that time I got it into my head that I'd read classic dog novels- which was even odder considering I was always more of a cat person. At least the Incredible Journey had one cat. Old Yeller and Big Red did not.