Friday, January 08, 2010

Reader's Diary #563- Neil Christopher and illustrated by Larry MacDougall: Stories of the Amautalik

I was pretty excited to learn recently of a new Inuit-owned publishing company out of Iqaluit, Nunavut known as Inhabit Media. As those Canadian Book Challenge participants who have tried to read a book from each province and territory can tell you, the selections from Nunavut are slim pickins.

Hopefully Inhabit Media will help change that. Right now they have a limited number of books in their catalogue, but they were nice enough to send me three of them to review. The first of these is Stories of the Amautalik, researched and written by Neil Christopher and illustrated by Larry MacDougall. A translator, Louise Flaherty, is also mentioned on the cover of my book but I think she must have done the Inuktitut version of the book as according to the Inhabit website, Neil Christopher is English.

Reading Christopher's author bio brought back memories for me. Like him, I moved to Nunavut to teach, fresh out of teachers' college. Also like him, my first introduction to Inuit mythology was a student telling me of Mahaha, the tickle monster. No, not Elmo. This one tickles you to death.

I wanted to learn more and more about the myths and legends, but admittedly didn't try as hard as I should have. I've since learned of the qallupilluit, through the Robert Munsch/ Michael Kusugak collaboration; the Ijiraq, again through Michael Kusugak's Hide and Sneak; and of course Sedna the sea-goddess who goes by different names across the Arctic with slightly different stories attached.

The amautaliit I haven't heard of. These are described as ogresses who travel the tundra looking for people, usually children, to eat. Once kidnapping her victims, she usually transports them back to her lair in a basket on her back or in the back pouch of her amauti (a type of parka). Like most ogres and ogresses she's also dirty, foul-smelling and full of bugs. But she also has rancid seaweed with her, which is a nice touch for an arctic ogre, don't you think? Fortunately, most stories show her to be a little on the not-so-bright side, so escape is at hand.

In Stories of the Amautalik Christopher shares two legends. The first, and longer of the two, deals with two boys, Alliq and Makpalu, who are teasing a younger girl named Kunaju, when the three of them are taken by surprise by a hungry amautalik. Kunaju saves the day by staying brave and using a magical amulet that had been passed down to her. However, since they stink so bad and are covered in bugs from their ride in the nasty basket, they have to remain out of the community until they have freshened up. It gives the boys time to reflect upon the value of this little girl whom they'd treated so poorly and they wind up, to Kunaju's surprise, apologizing.

In the second story a quick thinking orphan named Aviuq wiggles a toe through his shoddy kamik and pretends it is a sleeping monster to scare away a cowardly amautalik.

It's interesting to note that since these two legends came from two regions of the Arctic, MacDougall has chosen to draw them differently. It was either well planned or just fortunate that they matched the amautalik characters up the way they did. The first is definitely the scarier story of the two (no more than the witch in Hansel and Gretal, mind you), but the edge is taken off somewhat by the more buffoonish-looking ogress. On the other hand, the skull-faced amautalik in the second story could be down right terrifying were it not for the rather comical story she finds herself in. The way it is, I think the book has a much better balance. My only complaint is that I'd have liked more illustrations. 16 illustrations in a 48 page picture book doesn't seem like a lot, especially when they're so well done.

I'm looking forward to reading more from Inhabit Media.


Unknown said...

Sounds like it could be very interesting! I went to the website and checked out Inhabit Media site -- way COOL!!!
Thanks for broadening my horizons!

Wanda said...

My children and I have always enjoyed books about Inuit and First Nations mythology. I'll suggest this as a library purchase where it will hopefully find it's way into the hands of more children. How Eagle Got His Good Eyes and Hide and Sneak are great picture books but I'd love to come across more titles for middle grade readers. Any suggestions?

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Kusugak's "Curse of the Shaman" is aimed at that age group-- haven't read it myself though.

Teddy Rose said...

Thanks so much for the tip John. I am very interested too. I just checked and my library has it!