My rating: 7/10.
This is the account of writer Sheila Burnford’s personal impressions of two summers spent in and around Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, in 1971 and 1972. Burnford had received a Canada Council of the Arts grant to gather material for a book; she accompanied celebrated artist Susan Ross who had been commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum to create work for an exhibition of art depicting Indian and Eskimo life. The two were longtime friends and travelling companions, having previously spent time living together among the Ojibway of northern Ontario, which she wrote about in 1969’s Without Reserve.
This was a time of cultural shift, as the Inuit embraced and were influenced by modern culture and innovations, while still practicing their traditional way of life to a great extent. Burnford describes her personal impressions, and occasionally tries to pat the larger picture into context, but this is exactly what it says it is in the title – one person’s take on a place too large and complex for generalities to be made, though of course the author occasionally writes as though her observations and conclusions about this small piece of the Arctic apply more broadly. In general, the author keeps to her mandate, which is to tell us about her impressions during her short excursion into the far northern world.
Though it took me a while to work my way through it, now that I’ve completed it I find that ultimately I liked this book, and I enjoyed filling in a few more of the pieces of the author’s life. But it could have been better. What Burnford did so well in The Fields of Noon, though, was talk about herself, her life, her childhood, her family; always in reference to her subject, which made that collection of memoirs so very readable. In One Woman’s Arctic there seems to be more distance between writer and subject, while at the same time the tone is uneven – we’re never sure what “voice” the writer is using because she shifts around so much.
Burnford sometimes maintains an onlooker’s dispassionate view, describing the landscape and the animals and the indigenous people of the small part of the Arctic she visits with a writer’s eye, painting pictures with words. These episodes are very nicely done indeed, and I found that my vision of the scenes from her words were borne out by the pictures I later searched out of the places she visited. Burnford had a rare ability to capture the visual in words.
The weakest parts of the book were when Burnford left the realm of observation and description and ventured into the difficult area of analysis of what she is seeing in regards to the behaviours and motivations of the Inuit (“Eskimos”) she came into brief contact with, or, in the case of the two white mens’ graves at Quilalukan, researched in some depth. Sometimes, as John Mutford points out in his own not particularly favorable review of this book – One Woman’s Arctic by Sheila Burnford – The Book Mine Set Review – the writer falls into the “white man bad/Eskimo good by default” trap. But I felt that she salvaged the situations where she did this by continually acknowledging that she didn’t know if her interpretation was correct; that she was mulling over the situation and trying to make sense of it from her perspective as a very superficial onlooker, and a member of the invading, paternally patronizing race. Burnford never seems to lose sight of the fact that she is a visitor in an alien landscape, and that her comfort and safety rely on the kindness of others.
The episodes I enjoyed the most were when Burnford described the individuals she travelled and stayed with and got to know more intimately. The residents of Pond Inlet, where Burnford and her companion, artist Susan Ross, made their home base in the community’s kindergarten building, are described in lively anecdotal style; Burnford remarks on the fact that no one seems to have anything bad to say about each other, and that she thinks that this is the result of conscious effort on their parts. Referring to the non-Inuit residents of Pond Inlet, the group she and Ross associated with and socially fit in with:
Those who lived here all year round whether teacher, nurse, game warden, R.C.M.P. or administrator, had seemingly developed a safe preservation of peace (outwardly, anyway) attitude to their fellows. One very, very seldom heard any criticism of personalities, but only he/she is so nice/does so much/is wonderful at/ – etc. Occasionally, because one’s antennae were more acutely tuned through being an outsider, one was conscious of tension between certain individuals, but this was rare. I gathered that they had all worked it out during the six months of twenty-four hour darkness…Activities, such as bridge, over which people in cities can tend to become rather maniacal sometimes, were recognized as potential trouble-makers and avoided; and anything involving competition. A good, safe activity, capable of being shared, arousing no jealousy or competition, was that of photography: practically everyone was madly interested in this, and many did their own developing and printing. I have never seen such an impressive array of Hasselblads, Pentaxes, Leicas, etc. as I had up there.
Another contributing factor of harmony – which of course had its overall impact on the general community – was the average age, which was around thirty or under. An age more exposed to today’s precepts of ‘doing your own thing’ and Make Love Not War – precepts very much more in line with the outlook of the Inuit, who have always been a non-aggressive people; and also an age which avoids that difficult menopausal age group, universal elsewhere among those who have made it up to positions of authority, during which strife is commonplace and mayhem (verbal or otherwise) frequent…
An interesting take on the situation, especially as Burnford and Ross were older than the Pond Inlet “white person” average, being in their mid-fifties; one wonders if the menopausal comment was coming from personal experience, or merely through prior observations in the southern world!
Also very readable were the descriptions of the archeological dig at Button Point on Bylot Island under the auspices of the venerable Father Guy Mary-Rousselière; Burnford was present at the discovery of the second Dorset culture (A.D. 500-1000) shaman’s mask found at that site and vividly describes the unique challenges of archaeological exploration in a permafrost zone. Dorset Masks – Canadian Museum of Civilization Treasures Gallery
I found One Woman’s Arctic to be interesting read from my perspective as someone who has never personally experienced the Arctic, though I found it easier to lay aside and read other things concurrently than I did with her other memoirs, Without Reserve and The Fields of Noon. Even though it has some unresolved and unsatisfactory conclusions about northern life and Inuit culture, I think there is much to learn from Burnford’s observations, purely on the natural history aspect of the area she visited. Her descriptions of the human impact on the area, both Inuit and white, are frank and outspoken; Burnford may be looking through wishful rose-coloured glasses occasionally, but she mostly has them off, the better to turn a sharp eye on the details of her surroundings, and she is not afraid to share what she sees.
A snapshot of a time and place now lost in time, from the perspective of a thoughtful and very individual observer. The quality of the writing is excellent through most of the book, though there are occasional awkward phrasings and strangely punctuated passages which I suspect point to lapses on the editor’s part; Burnford, from my past experience with her work, is an accomplished writer not prone to sloppiness.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring the different regions of Canada, and in particular the far north, though with a reminder that it should be kept in context as one individual’s impressions, and is, unavoidably, now very dated, being written forty years ago.