Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Rankin Inlet by Mara Feeney
Published April 2009
Trade paperback, 252 pages
I love reading books that help me discover a new culture or country. Although I am Canadian, I felt I discovered for the first time part of my country with this novel set in Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, formerly the Northwest Territories. It’s the Canadian Arctic after all and very different from my own multi-cultural Montreal.
The story begins with Alison Clark, a young British woman who in 1970 leaves England to work as nurse-midwife in the remote village of Rankin Inlet. She experiences a sense of community belonging there and falls in love with the land and its people. It's a moving story of love and losses, changes and adaptations, ingrained beliefs and traditions.
The story is told through diary entries and correspondence of several of the characters, mainly Alison, as well as Ivaluk and Nikmak—both Inuit man. Through Ivaluk (Nikmak’s son) and his letters to his adopted kid brother Thomasie, we learn what the life of an Inuit is like, their joys, struggles, beliefs and customs. Through Nikmak, an Inuit elder, we get a true sense of the older generation and the changes and adaptations they experienced throughout the years into our modern era. Feeney also explores such topics as alcohol, inter-racial marriages, depression, and the influence of modern technology on a traditional people.
The beginning of the novel is a little confusing as Nikmak’s entries are initially seven months ahead of Alison’s and Ivaluk’s, but when theirs catch up to his, their stories intertwine beautifully. I feel the author truly grasped the voice of the Inuit people and brought them to life through the Inuktitut language and expressions. For example:
Snowflakes fat as ptarmigans are spinning down from the sky now. p.190
My legs feel as weak as a newborn tuktu calf. p.234
Nikmak’s entries would always end with a sing-song expression such as Aiyayayaaiieh and I could clearly hear in my mind his deep male voice singing.
As the story evolves and spans thirty years, we see the changes that take place among the Inuit people who went from hunt-gatherers to wageworkers. Positive political and cultural changes were brought about with the 1993 Land Claims Agreement Act that finally entitled Inuit with certain aboriginal rights. Because of this, the Inuit culture, beliefs and customs are now taught in Canadian schools so that I was somewhat familiar with some of the things I read in this novel, such as the food called bannock. My daughter came home with the recipe one day from her Social Studies class.
There are some sex scenes in this novel, but they are short and not explicit. One is described briefly but does not involve the main character.
Mara Feeney is a talented writer who has written a novel that kept my interest throughout, with believable, remarkable characters and a setting unlike any I have read before. I would certainly read another novel by this author.