Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reader's Diary #1122- Mara Feeney: Rankin Inlet

Mara Feeney's Rankin Inlet is epistolary novel made up of diary entries, letters, reports, and emails. The first entry is 1970 and the last is in 1999, two years before my wife and I moved to the very real Nunavut community from which the book draws its name. I could have really used this book back then. I'm not sure what we expecting. We bundled up a ridiculous amount of quilts and blankets, for example, because we figured it would be cold and... we'd be sleeping outside? In hindsight, our naivete was more amusing than anything else but we learned a lot in our four years there and look back on our time there and the friends we made quite fondly. Feeney's book could have provided a crash course that might have sped up the process a bit more.

Helpful perhaps, but far from perfect. It's barely got any narrative flow. To be sure, there's still a lot going on, mostly interesting stuff, so that didn't bother me greatly. More problematic were the excess of characters. While the central character is definitely Allison, a nurse from England who moves there and falls in love, she's still but one of many who have a say. Some, as a result, are underdeveloped and unnecessary, such as Ian, a Settlement Manager, who writes a few bleak reports and then leaves. A case could be made that in a transient community like Rankin there are plenty of those ephemeral voices, but that sounds like a post hoc justification. Rankin Inlet also tries too hard to educate. I was not surprised to read that Feeney was an anthropology student when she first went North because some characters (Nikmak, the Inuk elder in particular) seemed overly generalized; more researched and accurate than stereotypes, but still like composite characters.

Nonetheless, once I adjusted to the plethora of voices, the lack of a singular story arc, and the occasional "teaching" interruptions, I started to feel for the characters. That's a lot to ask, perhaps, and I attributed my overcoming it on being nostalgic for the place. However, I should point out that having a Rankin connection does not seem to be a prerequisite for enjoying the book.

(Special thanks to Debbie Viel, the closest lifelong friend we made in Rankin, who gave me this book for Christmas!)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I am a sucker for books that are set in places that I know. And obviously with this book, the setting is key.
Hopefully you made good use of all those quilts and blankets over the years.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I'm a sucker for wanting to read them as well, but I'm also usually highly on guard for authenticity. That, at least, was not a big issue here. I know I complained of composite characters, but it's still very clear Feeney had more than a passing familiarity with Rankin.