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17.4.06

Growing Up North

Ionarts welcomes the following book review from a friend in Paris, William Prendiville. It is hopefully the first post of many more to come.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Edward Beauclerk Maurice, The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic (published November 1, 2005)
After the most recent spate of publishing scandals, it is heartening to come across a book like The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. It is the memoir of a man who, as an English schoolboy in desperate circumstances, signed up for a 5-year contract with the Hudson Bay Company to work the isolated trading posts in Northern Canada; and the adventures he relates, and the quiet elegance with which he relates them, provide something of an antidote to the suspect memoirs of a James Frey, a “Nasdijj,” or a J.T. Leroy.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is entitled “The Boy,” the name given to the author by the Inuit living around his outpost when he first arrived. The second is “Issumatak,” which is Inuit for “He who thinks,” and which was the second sobriquet eventually given to Maurice by the same Inuit. Maurice was only 16 in 1930 when an Anglican Missionary visited his public school in England with a documentary film on Northern Canada. His father had died, his mother was in financial straits, and before the rest of his family had packed up to find work in New Zealand, Maurice was standing on the bridge of a supply ship, heading to the Arctic with almost no practical talents or experience, a naive and accident-prone schoolboy. He spent five years in the North, while Depression struck and war built up further south, visited once a year by a company ship and with a faulty radio to connect him with the outside world. His memories of the Northern trading posts take us from his first day, where he slipped and hung from the side a cliff until an Inuit saved him, through his attempt to save an Inuit population from an outbreak of tuberculosis with little more than aspirin, to the days when he sets off for the hunt with two female companions after the epidemic has killed a number of the tribe’s hunters.

The narrative is driven along more by what he did, what he saw, and what he heard, than by what he felt. He is tracked by wolves. There is a thrilling whale hunt scene where his ship is almost wrecked on the back of the whale as a storm brews. At another point, he is knocked half-conscious and wanders for almost two days until one of his female companions sets out through the snow and the ice to find him. And always in the background is the lonely grandeur of a land that he describes, as he may well have described life there in general, as “harsh, but quiet and honest.”

Other Reviews:

William Grimes, Crossing the Tundra on a March to Manhood (New York Times, November 9, 2005)

Dennis Drabelle, Writing to the Ends of the Earth (Washington Post, February 21, 2006)
About mid-way through the book, two Americans land their plane at his outpost, seeking food and fuel. They had lost everything in the Depression and were gambling for fame by making the first flight to Europe by way of the Arctic, with little money or provisions. Maurice gives them a letter to send to his mother, and two years later the letter comes back after having being caught in the net of some Danish fishermen. Characteristically, Maurice says nothing more about it than that, but his understatement, and at times his reserve, makes these scenes quite moving, as if the silence that follows this news were the same that followed that plane’s disappearance and the lives of the two carefree men with whom he’d shared an evening’s dinner. A large part of the book’s charm is this style, and the understatement, as much as it lends to pathos, can also be quite funny. He describes, for example, the Inuit “wife” of the boss at his first trading post, who was given to loudly cursing her husband up and down in Inuit for his sexual inadequacies, as a woman of “quite vigourous self-expression.” Mostly, though, what comes through is Maurice’s profound love and respect for the people who shaped his experiences. In the end, he is so integrated that a young Inuit girl arriving to meet the kudloona, or white man, who is to teach her English turns to her mother and says, “That’s not him. That’s only Issumatak.”

Maurice never comes off as a hero, or at least he never sets himself up as one. The lack of self-consciousness in his memoirs seems now almost anachronistic. But by not cataloguing his emotions, and by concentrating instead on the people he meets and describing the experience of others, the effect is such that, as happens in life, we find suddenly, without having been too conscious of how or when it happened, that he has grown up. And it is not difficult to believe that the 16-year-old boy who was thrown into the ship’s coldest cabin on the way up north and wryly mocked by the others is, by the book’s end, holding the hand of a dying girl who has looked to him for comfort and who, without quite the stoicism of the Inuit who had died from the sickness before her, asks him with tears rolling down her cheeks, “When am I going to die, Issa?” followed not much later by, “Why do I have to die so soon?” Maurice was then 21.

The dustcover of The Last Gentleman Adventurer says that Maurice died in 2003, as his book was being readied for publication. Apparently, he had written it decades before, but he left no other accounts, neither about a second trip to the Arctic, nor about the time he served in World War II for the New Zealand navy. This strikes me as a great loss, but as it stands he has left behind him a book full of hope and courage and pride, through which he shows, in himself and the vanished world he describes, the quiet dignity of the human spirit.

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