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Inukshuk

Gregory Spatz’s well-written novel Inukshuk involves two alternating and to some extent paralleling stories: a father-son story and an historical recreation of the last days of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew members on the ice-bound ships Terror and Erebus, trying in vain to discover the Northwest Passage. The parallels come first from the same names: the father is named John Franklin and his son, who is convinced he is related to the explorer, is Thomas, a name he shares with a crewmember. The father has moved the two of them to Alberta, Canada to be closer to his wife, who is on her own Arctic observation exploration. And both the explorer’s wife and the father’s wife are named Jane. What really links the two stories, however, is the thirteen-year-old’s escape into the world of the explorer’s expedition in its last days. Meanwhile, the modern John Franklin escapes into his poetry and fascination with the selkie myth (a shape-shifting myth of seal to man and back again, like the father’s own alternating myth with real life). This is a story of the danger of obsessions, the father’s and son’s coming after mother/wife Jane’s abandonment of them for her own obsession. Father and son each suffer alone, especially Thomas, the outsider in his school.

Gregory Spatz’s well-written novel Inukshuk involves two alternating and to some extent paralleling stories: a father-son story and an historical recreation of the last days of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew members on the ice-bound ships Terror and Erebus, trying in vain to discover the Northwest Passage. The parallels come first from the same names: the father is named John Franklin and his son, who is convinced he is related to the explorer, is Thomas, a name he shares with a crewmember. The father has moved the two of them to Alberta, Canada to be closer to his wife, who is on her own Arctic observation exploration. And both the explorer’s wife and the father’s wife are named Jane. What really links the two stories, however, is the thirteen-year-old’s escape into the world of the explorer’s expedition in its last days. Meanwhile, the modern John Franklin escapes into his poetry and fascination with the selkie myth (a shape-shifting myth of seal to man and back again, like the father’s own alternating myth with real life). This is a story of the danger of obsessions, the father’s and son’s coming after mother/wife Jane’s abandonment of them for her own obsession. Father and son each suffer alone, especially Thomas, the outsider in his school.

Spatz is particularly effective in indirectly showing the pain of both father and son, opening with the father, who is a teacher at Thomas’s school, intervening when a bully attacks his son. He wants to save Thomas, a foreshadowing of his attempt to do the same at the end, at the eleventh hour.

It is hard to believe the book’s events take place in a little more than two days, because more time seems to pass in the explorer’s world and because so much happens to the son over this period. The deterioration of both father and son seems gradual. The father in his pain also dips into that nineteenth century expedition, picturing Lady Jane, the explorer’s wife. Like his son, he goes beyond picturing—he knows the reality of the scene:

So he had his own picture of Lady Jane . . . staring out to sea from a deserted pile of wave-encircled rocks after Sir John. For him, it was not just more lore of the explorer: He’d seen those rocks and heard the gulls and looked straight north to nothing but more and more open sea.

Thomas keeps track of his scurvy symptoms, which he experiments with

to experience some part of it [himself]. . . . call it a failure . . . call it my deal with the dead sailors. my way of giving them a little honour and respect so I can put them in the movie. anyway i’ve got it so totally under control. . . . anything major bad goes down I can reverse it all in like ten days tops with vitamin supplements. i’m on target. all’s well. recurrent bloody nose (yes!). corkscrew hairs: negative.

Failure of the explorer reflects failure in the modern scenario too, with potentially deadly consequences: “Failure as a commander to find the passage, failure to break out of the ice, to follow orders and keep the men alive, failure to get back home. Failure, period. And then death. No, first suffering, and then death.”

Thomas first envisions the crewmembers moving out of the movie frame into his own dreams, and then they appear around and in his house. At the same time, Thomas’s Alberta winter merges into Sir John Franklin’s ice and midnight sun Arctic world.

This later world really comes alive, first in a general overview:

No way of gauging distance, really, with all that wind and ice and blowing snow like static. Blinding snow light. Sound of one man’s breathing, hard breathing, and then his face right in the camera. Black with frostbite around the nose and cheeks, eyes rimmed all around by ice. . . . Eyes bugged from hunger. Sepulchral voices . . .

Finally Thomas focuses on lowly crew member Edmund Hoar: “Dressed as he was—sleeping clothes and jacket, scarves, mittens—he could survive hours, days even, if he were careful and kept moving. Or he could die. Walk into a whiteout, fall through a crevasse, or just stumble along, ice-blinded, disoriented . . . ”

And then he could become the Inuit “Inukshuk. Stones placed to resemble a human form, marking the place. Signifying, Someone was here; You are on the right path.”

This enthralling, tense book should lure not only fans of extreme weather novels but also those who admire a good, traditional structure and a satisfying and meaningful resolution.

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