White Eskimo by Harold Horwood ~ 1972. This edition: Doubleday, 1972. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-04346-0. 228 pages.
My rating: 4/10
Oh, gosh, here’s another one.
A candidate for Canada’s stupidest novel, that is. (see The Last Canadian for the reference.)
I wanted to give credit to the author for his strong points: an interesting set-up framing the telling of the tale (eight people travelling in a supply ship along the northern Labrador coast start reminiscing abut the titular character), his strong descriptive passages regarding the natural features of the setting – land, sea, various wild creatures, his keen social conscience (many of his allegations regarding the damage inflicted upon indigenous peoples by paternalistic Caucasian interlopers are bang-on), and his obvious passion for his fictional subject.
But it is that very passion which goes too far by expecting the reader to swallow whole some bizarre allegations, which the author goes on about at great length with ever increasing vehemence.
- All religious and medical missionaries are weak, evil, power-hungry, greedy effetes, motivated in their travels to the furthest reaches of the Arctic lands by an unquenchable thirst for controlling every thought and action of their native congregations. (European Protestants being the most evil; the Catholics get a conditional pass.)
- All Eskimos (Inuit to us now; this was written in 1972) are beautifully childlike and trusting in nature, prepared by their innate belief in magic to follow anyone who presents well. They can be given some responsibilities, but because of their simplistic thought processes are apt to lose focus and wander off-task. Some very highly advanced individuals may be trusted with supervisory roles, but these are the exception.
- All Eskimo women make excellent wives/bed partners, being by nature compliant and soft-spoken. They are sexually eager and ready to accommodate any man who wishes to make use of their bodies, which is handy, because they are (in this tale) shared about among the men as a matter of course.
- The old Eskimo ways are the best. Period. Oh, except that it is okay to use European-introduced guns, steel traps and other various innovations versus traditional hunting tools. (But we won’t go there, because that would be inconsistent with the premise that The Old Ways are The Best.)
- Returning to traditional ways (though of course with aforementioned guns, steel traps etc.) means a return to a utopian way of existence.
- But because of his beautifully childlike and innocent nature, the Eskimo must be led in this direction (the return to utopia) by a designated leader, in this case a Great Hunter, an über-Eskimo (or would that be a pseudo-Eskimo, because he’s actually a white guy?) who is admirable because of his superior size, strength, hunting abilities, and undoubted “magical” powers.
- Oh – almost forgot this one – all policemen are corrupt. They can however denounce their corruption by leaving the police force and rehabilitating themselves in another occupation.
- Ditto most government officials. Except for the exceptions.
Here’s the story.
In a remote Labrador outpost, a stranger suddenly appears:
He descended upon Labrador as though from heaven. The Eskimos still talk of the morning the giant stranger came down out of the hills in the dead of winter dressed in the skin of a white bear, driving a team of white dogs with a long sled on the Eskimo pattern – a komatik as we call it – and bringing the biggest single load of white fox pelts anyone had ever seen.
The big white stranger (for he is indeed Caucasian under all those furs) proceeds to make friends with the local fur trader (an intellectual atheist) and enemies with the local missionary (a soft, luxury-loving German Protestant) and devotees of the entire local Eskimo population (due to his obviously magical powers, what with his coming from the spirit-infested interior mountains where hunters do not go etcetera etcetera).
Within days he has become “song brother” with the most prominent of the local Eskimos, and has started learning to speak the language with wonderful fluency. No surprises there, for Gillingham, the “White Eskimo”, is a dab hand at everything he attempts.
Pleased by his reception, Gillingham comes up with a clever idea. The Eskimos now gathered at the missionary post must return to the wilds, casting off the white man’s religious and societal constraints. Under his leadership, they will set up a series of traplines in an area shunned by all since the death of its previous inhabitants in a flu epidemic. Gillingham’s “magic” will keep the bad spirits away.
The Eskimos agreeably play along, and all goes well.
For a while.
Back at the settlement, the villainous Mr. Kosh (the missionary) is frothing with rage at the loss of the main core of his congregation. He swears vengeance upon Gillingham, and calls in the provincial police on a trumped up complaint against Gillingham: incitement of the Eskimos to pagan rituals and human sacrifice! The police arrive in full riot gear, and for a while things are tense, until the fur trader (Gillingham’s new pal and soon-to-be partner in the fur dealing enterprise) points out that no one is actually missing, so the human sacrifice thing was an exaggeration. (Mr. Kosh obviously mistook people comatose from their excessive revels for dead men.)
But soon there is a dead man, as Gillingham’s song brother is found under suspicious circumstance with a neat bullet hole in the centre of his forehead. There are no witnesses to the murder, but Mr. Kosh calls in the police again, swearing that Gillingham must be the murderer, for he is the only one capable of such an accurate shot. (In a community of skilled hunters, no one else is able to accurately hit a target at close range? Really, Mr. Horwood and fictional Mr. Kosh? Really?!)
The Eskimos all say, “Oh, no, couldn’t be Gillingham! A man does not kill his song brother, because he himself would then die!” The police, under Kosh’s influence, arrest Gillingham anyway. No one else is suggested as the murderer, and there is no attempt at investigation.
Long story short: the murder charge is dismissed on a technicality, and Gillingham serves several months in a southern prison on a lesser charge.
After getting out of jail and working his way around the world doing various menial jobs, Gillingham returns to Labrador, makes the rounds of his Eskimo protégés, gets his Eskimo wife pregnant, and then sets off alone into the mysterious mountainous interior from whence he came, leaving behind his own legend and a bunch of newly motivated Eskimo chaps, who go on to fulfill the White Eskimo’s legacy by succeeding at everything they put their hands to.
We never do find out who the murderer is.
What a stupid story this turned out to be, Farley Mowat’s glowing blurb on the front cover to the contrary. (“The best novel to come out of Canada in generations.”)
Turns out upon further investigation that Mowat and fellow author Horwood were buddies. Enough said.
Harold Horwood was quite the guy. He was politically active in Newfoundland politics, and represented Labrador as an MLA for a term. He travelled widely in the north, and became, as years went on, a passionate critic of what he saw as governmental abuses of power, especially in the support given to the religious orders in their administration of Eskimo affairs, and the complicity of the provincial police and RCMP in upholding that administration.
Horwood wrote a number of well received books, including a fictionalized 1966 memoir – Tomorrow Will be Sunday – also strongly critical of organized religion.
Here’s the Kirkus review for Sunday:
Embedded in excellent, chilly description of Newfoundland village life is a tangled sex story that is convincing at every turn but somewhat overplotted as a whole. In spite of honest characterizations, a story with as many twists as this begins to beg the reader’s already willingly given sympathies. Caplin Bight is populated by 250 brethren of the Church of the Firstborn. Hell-fearing, mean-spirited and paleolithic, these Stone Age Christian fisher folk expect the Day of Wrath imminently. They propagate only while fully clothed in bed in the dark of night. One day their pastor seduces fifteen year old Eli Pallisher. Eli’s closest friend and mentor is a young schoolteacher, engaged to the town’s only freethinking girl. Eli and his friend are discovered by the pastor, innocently wrestling in the nude after a swim. Charges are lodged and the schoolteacher goes to jail. While he is serving his sentence, Eli falls in love with the fiancee and she becomes pregnant. The friend is more open-minded than the town and returns finally to win his girl back…. Horwood keenly renders the vicious brutalization of the townsfolk by their religious mores; the rigors of cod and salmon fishing; and the benighted narrowness of a community such as this.
I seem to sense a sameness of theme with White Eskimo, though Tomorrow Will be Sunday‘s characters come from a bit farther south.
White Eskimo was undeniably an interesting read, but, sadly, I feel that I can’t recommend it, as its strengths were outweighed by the ridiculous plot, and the oversimplified depictions of the characters (all missionaries are bad, all Eskimos are good and noble, if slightly stupid). There’s also an attempt to portray the hero as a modern Gilgamesh, but it doesn’t come off very convincingly.
I’m open to exploring more of Horwood’s writing, but I will be approaching with caution versus enthusiasm.