Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Explorer's Daughter

 'my parents had spent our first few months in Greenland wondering why my hair never seemed to grow, until finally they discovered that the Eskimos had been cutting off and keeping my curls as protective amulets.'

 A couple of years ago we were staying with friends who live just about as far North as you can go whilst remaining on the British Mainland. Beyond their small village is a long stretch of empty coast dotted with rocks and lighthouses and then seemingly endless sea and sky. Cosily cosseted from the noisy winds that commonly batter the little settlement, seated by the log fire that provides water and heating for the whole house, my friend pressed a dated-looking book into my hands. It was called 'The Snow People' and written by Marie Herbert, the wife of Arctic explorer Wally Herbert over thirty years ago.

 Ostensibly it is an anthropological study, although not in an academic sense, of the Inughuit people of a small island, called coincidentally Herbert Island, in North Greenland. But in reality it is a far more fascinating story of a mother suddenly finding herself and her ten-month-old baby daughter in a completely alien culture to her own and living in the harshest environment imaginable. Wally's adventures travelling across dangerous and unexplored stretches of Arctic Ice seem straightforward when you read the challenges Marie faces. Their family home for two years is a simple hut measuring in total 14 feet by 11 feet usually intended only for visiting hunters. Kari remembers:

'The walls were dark blue and stained with old blood and grime, the windows were cracked, there was no toilet and an all-pervading smell of seal and walrus and general squalor hung in the air. 'We had to paint it immediately,' Dad told me laughing, 'to seal in the smell.''

None of the Eskimos speak English and so in order to communicate with her new community Kari's mother must first learn Danish and then use the Danish books to learn Greenlandic. The community, of necessity, is close-knit both physically and emotionally. Visitors walk in without warning and the village children are a constant presence, curious and enjoying the interesting supplies of English chocolate. Marie must learn to take care of herself and her young baby without being a burden to the community using traditional methods of survival.

  Their closest neighbours, Avatak and Maria have seven children and a well-worn path between the houses becomes testament to the familial warmth between the families. Kari calls their children her brothers and sisters and Avatak 'Ataata' - which is Greenlandic for 'Dad'. One of the saddest scenes in the book is when Marie, Wally and Kari must go home to England. Maria's outlook on life is so clearly broadened by her friendship with Marie; it is hard to witness the world suddenly become so small and claustrophobic for her again.

 Thirty years later Kari revisited her Arctic family and wrote 'The Explorer's Daughter' about her experiences, and best of all it is a story as engaging as her mother's.

 Kari speaks only Greenlandic on her return from her Arctic home to England at the age of two. Thirty years later she speaks pretty much only English. Alongside the joyful reunions of those who recognise little Kari as the charming little child they had adopted as their own, are many sad revelations as we see the consequences on the Inughuit people of the cultural invasion of the rest of the world. Alcoholism and global warming, which were already making an impact in the 1970s have had a devastating affect. Few families hadn't experienced a least one suicide amongst their younger generation and many of the local traditional hunting grounds are now unreachable due to melted ice.  Shockingly we hear that Maria shot and killed her husband Avatak not long after the Herberts' return to England.

 Kari returns to Herbert Island, which has now been abandoned by the population for the larger settlement of Qaanaaq (Thule). Her hut is almost unrecognisable as her one-time home, save for the shelves lovingly put in by her father:

 'the house was littered with belongings: furs, jackets, boots and provisions. In the main room a tin ashtray was filled with nicotine-yellow butts and rings of coffee stained the plastic tablecloths.'

 The hut has returned to being a temporary shelter for visiting hunters. But her adoptive grandfather's hut is just as he left it:

'Aata's faded armchair sat in the corner with his imprint still on the worn cushions. Naduk squeezed past me a plumped herself down in it happily chewing on a thumbnail. I took a sharp intake of breath in surprise, and realized that she had never known her grandfather. Naduk smiled, oblivious to my thoughts.'

The most important part - the photographs!

Kari's identity is so complex. She is neither English girl nor Inughuit, she never quite feels at home in Greenland and yet so many of the community consider her one of their long-lost children. She is able to see her community through the fresh eyes of an outsider yet know each member as personally as a family member might. The moment I closed the pages of 'The Snow People' and 'The Explorer's Daughter' I missed the people of Thule.

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