A graceful, moving story of cultures in collision—and concord—in the far north.
Chukchi writer Rytkheu, a native of the Chukotka region of far northeastern Siberia, is well known in Europe but new to American audiences. Influenced by Gogol and other classic Russian writers, he presents a matter-of-fact, sometimes almost ethnographic account of a conflict between outside and indigenous cultures, set in the early 20th century. The crew of a Canadian vessel, trapped in Arctic ice, set off dynamite in an effort to break the ship free; one unfortunate crewman, John MacLennan, is badly wounded in the attempt. “They should have waited a bit,” remarks a Chukchi who happens on the scene. “A south wind coming.” The reluctant captain decides to offload the wounded sailor in hope of getting him to a Russian hospital, though John is sure that he’s in for a bad time with “these savages”: “Their faces don’t inspire my trust. These people are just too unsavory-looking. Unwashed and uneducated.” As it happens, Rytkheu’s Chukchi know a thing or two about the healing arts, and soon a shaman is on the job, though John is distressed at losing certain body parts. (“ ‘What’s he wailing about?’ she inquired of Orvo.” “ ‘Crying over his hands,’ said the old man.” “ ‘Understandable,’ the shaman-woman nodded.”) Recovering, nursing his self-pity, John wonders whether he will ever be able to show himself among his own people again, even as his generous hosts do what they can to make him feel at home. As other outsiders come and go in ever increasing numbers, cultural misunderstandings ensue, while an ever-evolving John, formerly certain that his hosts were cannibals, is now inclined to think, with his Chukchi friend and benefactor Orvo, that “the less we come into contact with the white man’s world, the better.”
Merits a place in the small but rich library devoted to the peoples of Siberia and the Arctic, reminiscent at times of V.K. Arseniev’s classic Dersu the Trapper and at others of James Houston’s memorable White Dawn.