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Tender, anecdotal glimpses of life in the far Canadian north at mid-20th century, from a prolific novelist (Running West, 1990, etc.) and artist. Houston headed to the land of the Inuit on a whim (he simply hopped a plane north) and a prayer. He was clueless as to Inuit language and custom, untutored as to surviving in the austere landscape, but thunderstruck by the beauty of the place. When he was given a couple of small Inuit stone carvings in exchange for portraits he had drawn, a light flickered on in his skull: He would become a dealer in Inuit artwork, selling carvings as well as prints (the Inuit had always been skilled carvers and began making prints in the 1950s), and thus earn his meal ticket to the Arctic--and, not incidentally, earn a boodle for the artists at the same time. From 1948 to 1962 he traveled extensively throughout the territory, bartering for art while sampling and celebrating the Inuit way of life: dog-sledding, walrus hunting, navigating through a whiteout, the customary roll in the hay with his friend's wife, the architecture of the igloo, the beauties of a native kayak (""the early slanting sunlight made the kayak partly transparent, showing its inner ribs in a golden glow""). Framed in a series of quick, chatty vignettes, these tales of Houston's rambles and the life he builds in the far north are warm and avuncular, and they have the feel of performance art; you don't so much read the book as listen to it being told. There are moments when he strikes a discordantly quaint tone (when he fell in the water: ""It was nippy!""; the airplanes are primitive, with ""none of that newfangled stuff""), but for the most part, Houston's natural storytelling talents shine from the page. Sheer entertainment, as fascinating as it is charming.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1996
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin