Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reader's Diary #382- Harold Horwood: White Eskimo

I'm finally finished my first book for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge and what a disappointment it was. Can a white person ever write a good novel about the Inuit? I'm starting to believe it's impossible.

I wanted to like this book so badly. Written by one of Newfoundland's first nationally renown authors, I expected more. Instead, I got the typical preachy exalted Eskimo story (Eskimo good, white man bad) which does a disservice to the Inuit despite the good intentions. Gross generalizations, even positive ones, just reduce a people to stereotypes and make an exhibit out of them, like figures in a museum. White Eskimo overflows with such generalizations: "They have wonderfully accurate memories anyway for anything that really matters" to the profoundly silly, "any Eskimo can pick a lock with his eyes shut." Such words don't respect any differences amongst the Inuit and dampers any individual thoughts they might wish to express. On the margins of page 113, after Caleb is described as not being "as quick, intuitive, or brash as Nootka" I wrote, "finally individuality." Sadly, that was about it for the rest of the novel.

Whereas many authors wrap a story around a message or two, Horwood's cellophane was just too small and didn't cling. The novel is full of awkward passages with characters saying such things as,
"'The supreme evil, Ed, is trying to make people over into what you think they ought to be,' he said, 'It isn't just the missionaries who do it. People do it to each other all the time-- husbands, wives, children-- they never let each other alone, always slashing at each other, making excuses for their own failures, trying to carve each other into the image of what they'd like to be themselves. It's the whole meaning of the family in our culture..."
It's not that Horwood never any valid points, it's that he rammed them down our throats. Sure there were missionaries, police officers, and doctors (there's an interestingly negative portrayal of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a celebrity doctor in his time, thinly disguised as Dr. Toscin) who commited serious offenses against the Inuit, but except for the men of the Hudson Bay Company, Horwood oversimplifies them as evil, hardly allowing any rationale for their actions to seep through, nor acknowledging that there were individuals in those groups that did help. A couple years ago I reviewed a book of poetry by F.W. Peacock, a priest who served in Labrador. No surprise that he didn't paint a flattering picture of Horwood.

The novel is told in an interesting way: a group aboard the S.S. Kyle, making their way to Labrador, share their stories of Esau Gillingham, the renegade white man who infiltrated Inuit society, and became a legend, an almost godlike figure, who helped lead them back to their more traditional ways despite the best efforts of the church and government. There's also the question of whether or not he killed his best friend, an Inuk named Abel (though don't expect any resolution to that mystery). If it didn't come across that Horwood had too many axes to grind, it could have been a decent book.

The Soundtrack:
1. The Only Gay Eskimo- Corky and the Juice Pigs
2. Survival is a Dead End- Hellothisisalex
3. Nikanish (My People)- Kashtin
4. Arctic World- Midnight Oil
5. Hunter- Bjork


Zachariah Wells said...

Have you read James Houston's _White Dawn_?

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: No, but I have read his White Out, and I stick by my question.

Sam said...


I need to ask a favor. Blogger has locked me out of Book Chase because some software program tells it that my blog is a spammer. I have requested a formal review by a real person, and not just the robot who booted me, but I have no idea when, or if, this will be resolved.

I'd appreciate you helping me spread the word among our community so that others will know that I haven't just disappeared and that I hope to be back.

Right now, I have absolutely no access to my blog and they tell me that it will be deleted in 20 days.



Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I came across your Blog and find it very interesting. I have to agree with you wholeheartedly regarding the near absense of honest, non-pedantic and realistic portraits of Inuit in books. James houston's novels are abyssman despite him spending time in the Arctic. Same thing with Jurjevics' The Trudeau Vector, but he never set foot in the Arctic...I lived in Iqaluit for 6 years and in the end wrote a novel set there, From Within. I have not seen it on your blog but I guess that is not surprising. I made a concerted effort to be "real" in the portrayal of both Qallunaat and Inuit culture and the relationships between then but did not dwell on it. It just informed the story and played a factor in the ultimate downfall of the Revolutionaries. It got a horrible review by a reported in Iqaluit that I had a... subtle feud with... never been sure why but, hey it happens. It did get a great review in News North, Globe and Mail and in readers comments on If you read it, I would love to know your comments.


Robert Billard

John Mutford said...

Robert: I have heard of your book, and have read the infamous review. Alas, I haven't read the actual book itself...yet. The scathing words of said reporter only piqued my interest more. It's really a matter of so many books, so little time that I haven't gotten around to it. In any case, when I do, I'll be sure to post my review here (good or bad). Thanks for dropping by!