Jenkins (English/Univ. of Delaware; The Last Ridge, 2003, etc.) delivers another thrilling tale of death and tragedy in the snow-covered outdoors.
Jenkins specializes in epic feats of adventurous men, including climbers who die in a wintry avalanche and a unit of Army skiers fighting the Nazis. Now he’s taken on the story of Eskimos who, in 1913, murdered two Catholic missionaries and are brought to justice by a brave band of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The thriller aspect of the story is a pretext for Jenkins’s real effort: a comparison between the worldview of natives living in the harshest terrain on earth and that of the Europeans attempting to impose “civilization” on them. Eskimos knew better than anyone how to live where night reigns for half the year, Jenkins writes. Without them, the Europeans who first explored the Arctic’s thousands of miles of treeless wasteland would have surely perished or, as was common even when they did receive help, gone mad. Jenkins compassionately shows how Eskimos failed to develop a sophisticated religion or code of laws because they were simply too busy fighting to survive. With equal aplomb, he describes the people’s remarkable daily routines: the men constantly hunting to furnish the almost entirely carnivorous diet, and the women sewing constantly to maintain clothing able to withstand the elements. As in most frontier stories, Europeans are good, bad and ugly, the missionaries bumbling, though not necessarily defenseless. White explorers are either shifty or courageous, while the Mounties are uniformly sympathetic, losing their colonizing instincts as they ford icy lakes, hunt caribou and learn to respect the natives’ survival skills. Plot and theme unite in the trial at the conclusion, a sad affair where a blowhard prosecutor addresses a shocked, all-white, all-male Edmonton jury as the two Eskimos—sweating in temperatures they find scorching—fall asleep in their chairs.
An appealing read for Dragnet fans and anthropology buffs.