I reviewed Melanie McGrath's The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic several months ago for Booklist. Even with a degree in Northern Studies, this was a story I was completely unaware of and it blew me away. Basically, in the 1950s, the Canadian government relocated several Inuit families to the barren wasteland (and I mean that literally) of Ellesmere Island. It was a bizarre social experiment aimed at proving that the Inuit would do better if forced back in time - forced to act more like the people the whites thought they should be. Part of its extreme failure was due to the fact that everything these people knew how to do as far as hunting and fishing was impossible in Ellesmere. In other worlds, they were being asked to not only live like their ancestors, but do it in a place where their ancestors chose not to live.
And so they died. Many many many of them died.
If The Long Exile was a dry academic tome then I might understand why it has been relatively unnoticed. But McGrath wrote this book as a piece of "historical detection" according to the starred review in Kirkus, and I completely agree. She has the testimony of those who grew up in Ellesmere and the reams of reports and findings from the many government employees involved in the relocation. This is not a book about how McGrath thinks it might have been in Ellesmere, it is a book about how it was - and why it was - according to those who lived it. The payoff is the 1994 Royal Commission on Aborignal People report which determined that contrary to claims that the Inuit were relocated to ease population overcrowding, "The goal of the relocation was to restore the Inuit to what was considered to be their proper state."
Even though their "proper state" was not Ellesmere and these Inuit were generations removed from the life they were forced back into.
The commission concluded:
"The relocation was an ill-conceived solution that was inhuman in its design and its effects. The conception, planning, execution and continuing supervision of the relocation did not accord with Canada's then prevailing international human rights commitments.
Great wrongs have been done to the relocatees, and it is incumbent on the government to accept the fundamental merit of the relocatees' complaints. This acceptance is the only basis upon which reconciliation between the Inuit and the government is possible."
There were sixteen families sent to the high Arctic between 1953 and 1955. They were promised they could return if they were unhappy there. Although they repeatedly begged to go back to the eastern shore of Hudson's Bay, the government refused their wishes. There was a boat only once a year; there were no roads, no aircraft, no trails. They were marooned by their own government for no discernible reason other than a conviction on the part of several members of that government that they knew better where native peoples should live. They suffered and they died and still those in charge called the experiment a success. They could not accept that the solution for the Inuit and the whites was much more complicated than simply moving them away; they thought the "happy eskimo" would save themselves in the wild but it doesn't happen that way when cultures clash in modern times and it never will.
If you have any interest in indigenous peoples or social justice or anthropology then you will love The Long Exile. If you want to see what a dedicated journalist can accomplist then by all means read this book. It is exceedingly well written and compelling from start to finish. My Booklist review was starred for this one, and for good reason. McGrath is a great nonfiction talent, and I hope she has chosen another unknown topic to shed some light on for her next book.
Other WIcked Cool Overlooked Books today:
At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Jules and Eisha are looking at books from two Australian authors: Margo Lanagan and Steven Herrick. Go see what they have to say about White Time and By the River.
At Finding Wonderland, TadMack suggests we all take a look at Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Watt-Evans and Andre Norton's Scent of Magic ("Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty's stories all seem to collide and combine into an intriguing blend in Scent of Magic.")
Becky posts on The Legend of the Wandering King: "Set in Arabia in 6th century C.E., THE LEGEND OF THE WANDERING KING is an exciting adventure story with probing questions. Is there such a thing as fate? Can a man ever truly make amends for his past mistakes? Is a man defined by his mistakes? Can a person really change his character?"
Jen Robinson remembers The Strictist School in the WorldThe plot, with loyal relatives trying to help a young girl escape from a prison of a school, reminds me of one of the main sub-plots in Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan. "
Alice wants us to take note of The Whispering Wall: "From Fantastic Fiction: 'Confined to her bed by a stroke, believed to be comatose, and surrounded by greedy relatives, Sarah Oatland overhears a plot to commit murder.'"