Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Polar North

polarThis book about living with the Greenland Inuit mixes travel with linguistics and anthropology, but is mostly about how people live in the frozen north. Much like Laurens Van Der Post’s narratives about places and peoples, Stephen Leonard’s well-told account of his year in Greenland contains chunks of theory and philosophy. I found the straight linguistics understandable enough, and jolly interesting, but I draw the line at phenomenology for armchair reading. These short outbreaks of scholarly erudition belong to a separate conversation, but you can ignore them if you want to just read about Leonard’s year immersed in Inugguit culture. The publishers deserve a slapped wrist for failing to do basic recuperative editing, most of all for not ensuring that there was an index, but the reader’s irritations over these minor blips are easily overcome by the interest of the subject.

Inugguit (pronounced ‘in-u-HOUEy’, roughly) is their own name for the indigenous people who live in Greenland. It’s a name related to ‘Inuit’, but they also use the term ‘Eskimo’, which is apparently not pejorative, so Leonard uses all three nouns interchangeably. He is a former merchant banker who retrained in linguistics at Oxford, where he now works. He unexpectedly found an opportunity in summer 2010 to live in the Greenland town of Qaanaaq for a year, studying and learning the Inuit language, and becoming, or attempting to become, part of the community. He made a really excellent video about the people and his year among them (only ten minutes), which I strongly recommend watching. Once you see the faces and hear the sounds of the lives of these very normal but also extraordinary people, the book becomes essential reading.

Greenland is Danish territory, though the Inugguit have closer racial, cultural and ethnic links with their near cousins in Baffin Bay in Canada, just across the Pole, than they do with their queen in Copenhagen. Leonard lived alone in a small hut in Qaanaaq, making extended visits to the even more remote settlements of Hiorapaluk and Haviggivik. He goes hunting for narwhal (none), seal (some), nearly succumbs to hypothermia when he forgets to get into dry clothes after six hours of cross-ice skiing, and makes a luckily safe decision when his ski pole breaks when he is thirty miles from home on the sea ice. He seems to be the only person in Qaanaaq who thinks of the Greenland sledge dogs as fellow animals, rather than engines on legs. The passages about the deaths of two dogs that he cannot do anything to help crack the austere mask of the professional academic, and reveal a man who finds himself once again cut off from his neighbours by their disinterest in something that tears him up.

stephenHe endures months of dark, but finds the season of constant light almost as difficult, since sleep deprivation is a worse torment than seasonal affective disorder. He acclimatises so successfully to living in a dilapidated frozen hut, that when spring comes again he finds zero degrees pleasantly warm.  He learns to enjoy frozen and raw fish, polar bear (properly boiled, to prevent trichinosis), seal and whale blubber, and fermented Little Auk. Leonard uses the detail of how the food looks, smells, and tastes (blood dripping into bowls on the floor, hunks of frozen reindeer sitting waiting to be sliced by visitors, pinkish blubber in heaps in the snow) to take us to the stories of how the food is hunted, prepared, preserved and served, so these moments of eating become a window to daily life. Other aspects of food-gathering are not mentioned, which is a pity. There is a shop in Qaanaaq, and food of all kinds is eaten by the people, including cakes for the very frequent kaffimik or coffee-times of celebration of communal gathering, so I wanted to know, were these cakes from the freezer cabinet? Did anyone do home baking? (From his appalled descriptions of Inuit housekeeping, it seems unlikely.) Did anyone else share his passion for Marabou Swiss chocolate, or did he get to eat the entire annual stock that the boat brought in?

The Inugguit are profoundly social people, and the thesis of Leonard’s book is that their need for and dependence on constant visiting, or pulaar, to maintain the health of this very non-individualistic community has shaped their language. The active verb of being on the way to or from somebody or somewhere takes the place of nouns. There are over twenty words for ice in its different forms and states, but not for ‘ice’ in itself. The most common greeting is ‘to where?’ The visiting can last for hours, with nothing much being said or done in that time, and the same person might visit the same people four or five times a day. Sleeping takes place at any time, and decisions on whether to go hunting or not depend on the weather and can change at any time. When a starving and thus very dangerous polar bear is shot outside Leonard’s hut, the village is up at 3am to comment on the body and have some more pulaar. This episode is in the video: the sound of the flaying knives being sharpened for the expert retrieval of the skin and meat, and the businesslike way the men go about getting the bear’s body ready for dismemberment, are the most powerful evidence of the living skills and knowledge that might soon disappear.

Despite the constant sociability, Leonard does not become more than an accepted outsider in the town, a kadluna who wants to take the Inugguit’s songs and language away with him. He does make a lot of dear friends, and has good and close relationships with men and women he clearly likes and admires a great deal. He is sad about the obvious deterioration of Inuit society, most obviously from Qannaaq’s profound alcoholism (it has been banned in Haviggivik, which is a happier, more prosperous and healthier place), and from the social pressures that cannot accommodate the outside world’s requirements or climate change. This is a doomed culture: the sea ice is thinner, there are fewer seals (the staple food), and the weather is changing. Songs and stories are being lost because the people who know them are dying without recording them. It is very sad. But this book is an excellent way to see how some Inugguit people can adapt, and how things might be preserved.

Stephen Pax Leonard, The Polar North. Ways of Belonging, Ways of Speaking (Francis Boutle Press, 2014), ISBN 978-1903427941, £20.

Kate met Stephen when she was working in Oxford. The link to the Cambridge University page that describes and hosts the video is here.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

2 comments on “The Polar North

  1. Jackie
    December 17, 2014

    This sounds very interesting, though I know I can’t read it because of the dogs & the butchering, but I can see how it would be fascinating to learn about this society. I find it intriguing that they have such a culture of visiting, that must be vital in such a harsh and isolating landscape.

  2. Hilary
    December 18, 2014

    This sounds terrific all round for me, but particularly the linguistics. But, but…. no index? Shocked.

    I recall a moving episode in Borgen when the new Prime Minister Brigitte made her first visit to Greenland and was rapidly enlightened, and enlightened me in my turn, very very slightly, but mostly by making me think about Greenland at all, let alone the challenges of living there.

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