White Heat by M.J. McGrath: a book discussion

March 24, 2013 at 2:46 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Man with Seal, by Kellipalik Qimirpik

Man with Seal, by Kellipalik Qimirpik


Igunak. Fermented walrus gut. Very good for you. Keep you warm.”

Welcome to the world of Edie Kiglatuk, chief protagonist of M.J. McGrath’s highly unusual mystery, White Heat.    9781455110261


[Click twice on the map for an enlarged and readable view.]

   Edie is a skilled guide in Canada’s High Arctic. She takes the qalunaat – white men – out ‘on the land,’ mainly to hunt. She’s also a part-time teacher at the local elementary school. The living she cobbles together in this way barely makes ends meet. She’s divorced, and although she has no children of her own, Joe Inukpuk, the son of her ex-husband Sammy, has become very dear to her.

Edie gets involved in an investigation that hits very close to home. It has to do with a death that appears to be a suicide but may have been something else. The police are also involved in the person of the local law enforcement officer, Derek Palliser. Derek is young, and a more than competent policeman, but his relationship with Edie produces plenty of static. Eventually she goes haring off on her own in an effort to further the investigation. Derek finds her actions deeply exasperating. (Derek has an obsession with lemmings that several of us found rather odd.)

In White Heat, M.J. McGrath presents us with an extremely crowded canvas, filled as it is with numerous secondary characters. In addition, the plot evolves toward a formidable degree of complexity. I readily admit to being lost in the back stretch, especially during the last third of the novel. On the other hand, McGrath’s descriptions of this forbidding yet fascinating place are intensely lyrical and evocative:

It was one of those beautiful, crystal-clear Arctic evenings where everything seemed picked out in its own spotlight. The sky was an unimpeachable blue and before him stretched a fury of tiny ice peaks, unblemished by leads. In the distance the dome-shaped berg, which had bedded into the surrounding pack for the winter, glowed furiously turquoise.

In contrast, descriptions of the food traditionally consumed by the indigenous population were somewhat off putting. No – let’s be blunt – at times, downright revolting! There’s the fermented walrus gut being praised so enthusiastically by Edie in the quote at the top of this post. In that scene, she is offering this ‘delicacy’ to Andy Taylor, a qalunaat for whom she is acting as a guide on a hunting trip. His reaction:

Taylor took a bite. Slowly his jaw began to move. Pretty soon a rictus of disgust spread across his face. He spat the meat onto his glove.

A profane exclamation is uttered at this point. (Andy later goes missing in a blizzard, on an excursion led by Joe Inukpuk. Andy’s disappearance creates a mystery, followed by a tragedy.)

Two other dishes offered up for the reader’s delectation in this novel are hearty seal- blood soup and “delicate little nuggets of fried blubber.” . We couldn’t  help laughing about the way in which, in respect of food, White Heat differs so markedly from, say, the novels of Donna Leon. In those, the reader is positively salivating over the culinary delights so casually whipped up by Paola Brunetti, wife to the most fortunate Commissario. Whereas, quite frankly, the food described in White Heat made my stomach churn! Ah well. Perhaps one must be born to it.

I had a more serious problem with the relationship that the Inuit people have with the animals in their world. That the Inuit live by hunting is a given, but even the sled dogs are regarded more as engine parts than as living beings, never mind companion animals. Reed rightly offered the reminder that these dogs function as machines rather than pets, for their Inuit owners. My response was that even  though I acknowledge this fact in my head, my heart cannot accept it. (Edie does have Bonehead, a pet more or less, but she doesn’t seem to expend much affection on him.)

Survival is – must be – a top priority in this community, and the author is generally compassionate toward the hard pressed Inuit. They can be courageous and resourceful, yet these very same people are beset with dysfunctional elements, chief among them being alcohol and drug abuse – problems not known to them prior to their contact with white men.

13589171  The Boy in the Snow, the second  in the Edie Kiglatuk series, came out here in November of last year. Several in our group had either read it or were planning to do so.  I  believe that Carol mentioned that McGrath is already at work on the third Edie Kiglatuk novel.


Our discussion was led by Carol. She provided us with fascinating background material. I was especially interested in Melanie McGrath herself. What caused her to become so passionately interested in this remote region of the planet? Born in England, McGrath has traveled widely and lived for a time in places as disparate as Las Vegas and Nicaragua. She’s now back in England, concentrating on her writing.

{8F79CA52-3168-42CC-8D6A-948F601A1A92}Img100  Up until the publication of White Heat in 2011, McGrath had been writing primarily nonfiction. Carol had especially recommended one of those titles, The Long Exile. Subtitled A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, this is the story of the forced relocation of seven families, consisting of some three dozen individuals, from Inukjuak, their home on the east coast of the Hudson Bay, to Ellesmere Island some twelve hundred miles north. I started reading this book after I’d finished White Heat. The events described in The Long Exile are so gripping that they overtook the content of the novel in my imagination and more or less blocked it out. (Another person in our group, Pauline, was having a similar experience with the two books.)

The Long Exile begins with the story of  Robert Flaherty’s travels in the Barren Lands that so fascinated him, and the landmark film that emerged from his experiences there.

Flaherty was used to wilderness, but no wilderness he had ever experienced matched this….He felt the flinty, lichen-painted sweep of the tundra and the great expanses of sea and ice and sky as a swelling in his chest. The starkness of the place enthralled him. It was as though  every step  farther north was a footfall on a new discovery. The tundra rolled out, empty and uncompromised, all around him.

Although some of the scenes were deliberately staged, his film Nanook of the North remains an almost iconic work of ethnography. With no road map to guide him, Robert Flaherty virtually invented the genre of documentary film.

And yet, Nanook of the North was not the only legacy Robert Flaherty left behind among the people of the High Arctic….

McGrath’s writing positively soars in The Long Exile.  The story of the privation and suffering endured by the Inukjiak people as they struggled to survive their first winter on Ellesmere Island may be the most harrowing nonfiction narrative I’ve ever encountered.

The Inuit were deposited on the Lindstrom Peninsula of Ellesmere Island. There was insufficient snow for the building of snow houses, so the families had to remain in tents.  The place was so alien, so devoid of any kind of life, human, animal or plant, that Mary Aqiatusuk, wife of Paddy Aqiasutuk, the group’s senior member and leader, was prompted to inquire of her husband: ‘Are we still in the same world?’

Well, they were, but just barely. And things were about to get worse. Once the sun set over the island on October 15 1953, it would not rise again until four months had passed.  And with the all enveloping darkness came the cold, deep and brutal:

The temperature hovered around -30˚C and when November arrived, it plunged even lower. With winds roaring from the Arctic Ocean the windchill could drop the air temperature on the sea ice to -55˚C.  Whenever they went outside, their heads pounded, their eyelashes froze together and little ice balls collected around the tear ducts in their eyes. The hairs inside their noses stuck together and pulled apart each time they breathed and their breath came as a shallow pant. The lungs burned, the eardrums ached and the brain struggled to locate the body’s extremities.

December came. The temperature inside the tents rarely rose above -15C.  Hunting became impossible. The dogs suffered horribly, along with the humans.  They all began to starve.

To satisfy their cravings they began to eat the carcasses of starved wolves or foxes they found lying in the ice. They ate ptarmigan feathers and bladders and heather, they boiled up hareskin boot liners and made broths from old pairs of sealskin kamiks. They chewed seagull bones and dog harnesses. They ate fur and lemming tails.

Much of this was indigestible and made their insides revolt.

There’s more, but you’ll have gotten the idea by now. By some miracle and despite these appalling conditions, the Inuit survived that terrible winter:  “Spring arrived on Ellesmere Island.”

Ice crystals spangled the air. Forests of little ice fronds sprang up from the land, icicles hung from the roof of the sod huts and the wind transformed them into little glockenspiels. Ellesmere Island became almost unbearably beautiful.


Nanook of the North has been remastered and reissued by the Criterion Collection. An essay on the Criterion site provides context and background. (While viewing the film, Ron and I were struck by the exceptional beauty of the soundtrack. This is a new score, written expressly for the Criterion release by Timothy Brock, a composer who specializes in restoring the scores of silent films and composing new ones.)

Martha of the North is a 2009 film made by Martha Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s granddaughter. Click here to watch the trailer. I found two other related films: Nanook Revisited (1990) and Broken Promises: The High Arctic Relocation (1995). Here is an excerpt from Broken Promises:

It appears that the only one of these films that’s readily obtainable is Nanook of the North.


The Nunavut region is now being promoted as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, as Melanie McGrath reports on her blog, the area is currently experiencing an upsurge in crime.


Aside from being a skilled hunter and a natural leader, Paddy Aqiasutuk was a gifted artist. While he and his family were struggling to stay alive through their first winter on Ellesmere, his work was featured in an exhibit of Inuit sculpture in London. Reviewers lavished praise on his carvings. There was a certain irony in all of this, and McGrath, who has a fine ear for such things, describes it thus:

The exhibition proved so successful that galleries in Edinburgh and Paris asked for it on loan and Aqiasutuk’s name became well known in certain art circles. Aqiasutuk knew nothing of this exhibition. No one had thought to tell him it was on. He was stuck at the top of the world, barely surviving.

I’ve not been able to find any images of carving directly attributed to Paddy Aqiasutuk. The image at the top of this post is feature on the Dorset Fine Arts site.


This dual reading experience put me in mind of a  book I read some years back: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins. This story of the murder of two Catholic missionary priests in the Canadian High Arctic in 1913 is among the best true crime narratives I have ever read. bloody-falls


White Heat elicited a stimulating discussion among the Usual Suspects. I think we all appreciated the uniqueness of both the setting and the protagonist. But the plot became somewhat labored, and the novel was so filled with the lore of the Inuit that, as Reed commented, it was as though McGrath were writing two different books at the same time. As I indicated earlier, I think McGrath has a better grasp of the material, and surely a more compelling story tell, in The Long Exile. Even so, for the most part I did enjoy White Heat and I might continue with the series at a later time. I thank Carol for her excellent choice – this was a real learning experience, in more ways than one.

Also I want to emphasize one fact: I think Melanie McGrath is a terrific writer.  McGrath

The the High Arctic Relocation is a very complicated, as well as a very sensitive subject. While I haven’t attempted to examine it in detail here, I hope I’ve pointed you in the direction of further research, iff you’re interested. Certainly The Long Exile is an excellent place to start. The Wikipedia entry is also quite informative.


These still images from Nanook of the North are of “Nanook,” played by Alakariallak, and his wife “Nyla,” probably played by Maggie Nujarluktuk.





1 Comment

  1. White Heat by M.J. McGrath | Ms. Wordopolis Reads said,

    […] reviews appear in Books to the Ceiling (includes lots of background information on McGrath’s nonfiction work about the Inuit), […]

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