In December, I purchased two whodunnits, thinking it would be the perfect vacation reading. Which it would have been. But then I broke my leg, and that was the end of my reading for a while. I just couldn’t focus. While still on the island, I watched a lot of HBO–because that was the only channel I could get on the TV in my room–and once home, a lot of National Geographic. But finally I broke the grip on my inability to read.
First I read my book club’s selection for January, “The Language of Flowers”, and just yesterday, I finished the first of my two whodunnits, “White Heat”, by M.J. McGrath. It was spectacular. Frequent readers know that I very much like to read books which take place in countries and environments different from my own, and which introduce me to different people and cultures. I’ve always maintained you can learn a lot by reading fiction.
This book takes place in and around the fictional village of Autisaq on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Nunavut was officially created in 1999 when it was separated from Canada’s Northwest Territories. (Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) Most of it is within the Arctic Circle. Eureka, where there is a science station that figures prominently in the book, has an average high temperature in January of -28F, and a low of -41F. Not to mention four months of no sun in the winter.
The sunlight situation, either sun day and night or none at all, or days of waxing or waning sun, seems to seriously interfere with the formation of any sort of Circadian rhythm.
Our heroine, Edie Kiglatuk, is half Inuit and half white. She’s a schoolteacher, but in order to make extra money, she’s also licensed as a hunting guide. In the beginning of the book, while guiding a pair of qalunaat (white people) on a hunting trip (where they seem strangely uninterested in hunting), one of them is mysteriously shot and killed. This is just the first murder.
If you look up Nunavut, you’ll find that they have no provincial tree. That’s because trees don’t grow in the Arctic. Also, you can’t farm there, so plants are not a part of the Inuit diet. That means, what they eat is…meat and fish. And bread. And no part of an animal goes to waste. They either eat it, or use the hides for clothing and bedding. Which brings me to the thing that fascinated me most about the book: the food. It was even more interesting than the mystery.
Let me introduce you to some of Edie’s food: Igunaq (fermented walrus gut); maktaq (whale skin with some blubber attached), sea urchins, seal blood soup, caribou tongue. Some fish, they eat raw. If you’re on a fishing trip far from home, and want to eat what you caught, you can’t go gather firewood.
There are a large number of birds available to them too, eiders during some parts of the year and a variety of auk species most all the time. Edie doesn’t eat birds in this book, but I know from watching a special on National Geographic about a dish called kiviak. This is a traditional Inuit dish of fermented auk. You catch the birds and seal them in sealskin pouches, then bury them. (That part must be a little hard–the burying part.) It takes the birds about 9 months to be “ready”. Then you unbury them, take off the feathers, and eat them raw. And you thought oysters were weird?
There are many more fascinating revelations about the Inuit lifestyle, and you simply can’t help but admire their ability to adapt and survive. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next Edie Kiglatuk mystery, “The Boy In The Snow”.