It is time – past time! – for me to bid farewell to The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath. I’ve already written about this remarkable book, in conjunction with a discussion of this author’s mystery White Heat. I liked the mystery, with some reservations, but I love The Long Exile, with no reservations. Here are some of the reasons why:
The little boy would have spent his first few months of life in Maggie’s amiut. There he would have lain warm and naked, the filling in a sandwich of animal fur and human skin. His earliest view of a landscape, one whose contours he would never forget, would have been the rise and fall of his mother’s strong, sealskin-scented back. When he was hungry, his mother would have lifted him from the hood and put him to her breast. When he shat, she would have cleaned his naked skin with her hair. For months he would have slept, watching the Arctic world go by, and dreamed. By the time summer came he would probably have already been eating what would become the mainstay of his diet, seal meat, chewed and softened by Maggie. Already the breezes and the low contours of the land would have been familiar to him. He would have had a strong sense of where he was.
The only land lying between the d’Iberville and northern Siberia, 1,500 miles distant across the polar ice cap, was the mountainous ice capped terrain of Ellesmere Island. It was a forbidding place. Layers of peaks stretched back as far as the eye could see like a great army waiting the call to march. Ice mist glittered from the crags and drifted into the air and it would have been easy for anyone of a superstitious nature to suspect the island of being some kind of rocky anteroom to eternity, an in-between world where discarded spirits and the souls of never-born children curled up from the high peaks like mist and real life was just a dimming dream.
McGrath is exceptionally eloquent when describing the deprivation and terror experienced by the Inuit during that first harrowing winter on Ellesmere Island:
On 15 October 1953, the sun set over Ellesmere Island for the last time that year. For the next four months the Inuit would be living in perpetual darkness. On good days, when the clouds were drawn back, the sea ice reflected the moon’s glow and so long as the Inuit were out on the ice, they could see their footprints. On bad days, and most days were bad days, they could not tell what was beneath or above or around them, nor in which direction they were travelling or even when their journey, however short, might end. The Inuit of Inukjuak had no word for the void that opened up around them. At first, they tried to carry on with the routine they had worked so hard to establish while there was still light….But the dark exhausted them and pretty soon it was almost impossible to maintain a routine. Their body clocks broke down and the brain could not tell whether it was day or night or something in between. The absence of light made hunting an almost daily terror. Though they could no longer see it, the constant creaking and cracking of the ice reminded them that they were surrounded. The ice around the Lindstrom Peninsula often broke open without warning and floes were blown away on the high winds. Rime frost and beached ice collected at the shore and right at the sea’s edge the smooth spread of the ancient ice foot gave way to rough ice rubble and pressure ridges. The hunters had not had time to learn the position of all the contradictory currents and eddies in the sound before the dark came down, and they did not know where the ice was at its most unstable. Around the cracks there were patches of rotting ice and, beyond these, smooth fields of the open sea ice interrupted by immense, embedded icebergs.
Later, when a new family arrives, they must endure the same awful privations:
After a few days, the Flahertys discovered that their internal clocks had broken, waking them at all hours and disturbing their sleep. In the dark, everything seemed at the same time simpler and more complex. Objects became silhouettes whose sharp outlines obscured detail. Their own fingers dissolved into tentacles floating in a sea of contradictory impressions. Adults felt shorter, children taller, eyelashes felt thicker, noses more fleshy. The others, who had gone through it all before, attempted to reassure them, but there were so many bewildering new sensations that it was impossible to feel comforted.
It was decades before the injury done to these people was acknowledged by the government of Canada. Redress for these wrongs was obtained by the formation of a new legislative entity: Nunavut, created on April 1, 1999. Nunavut means “Our Land” in the Inuktitut language. At 787,155 square miles, it comprises one fifth of Canada’s land mass and is the fifth largest country subdivision in the world.
The government made further reparations by establishing a fund containing ten million Canadian dollars, the purpose of which was “…to provide housing, travel, pensions and compensation for the sixteen families who were relocated to the High Arctic in 1953 and 1955 and their descendants.” McGrath adds that there were calls for the government to issue an official apology to those whose lives were blighted, and in some cases lost, due to the Arctic relocation. At the time of her writing, however, no such gesture had been forthcoming. (The Long Exile was published in 2006.)
The story of the Inuit of Inukjuak and their forcible removal to Ellesmere Island is one of suffering, endurance, and ultimately, vindication and triumph. It is told with compassion and conviction by Melanie McGrath. The reviewers in both Booklist and Publishers Weekly used the word “riveting” to describe this narrative. The Long Exile is a masterful recounting of a story that needed to be told. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.