A Guide to Good Books
IN point of size, Peter Freuchen has no equal among modern writers. This Viking stands six feet five; he weighs between two and three hundred pounds; his beard is a red-brown blanket. For twenty-five years he weathered the Arctic; for fourteen of them he maintained a trading post at the point farthest north that men have ever lived.
THE MAN of the MONTH
[Farrar & Rinehart, $3.50]
THIS is the biography of a Dane who spent most of his life in Greenland and went native. 1 have read it through at one sitting and found it by far the most absorbing volume on the Arctic regions I have ever come across. I cannot imagine anyone else bridging so completely the gap between our lives and those of the Eskimos. When we put the book down we realize that as dwellers in temperate zones, amid the refinements of civilized life, we should have experienced the emotions of horror, disgust, and unbelief. Yet so surely and sympathetically does the author lead us into the life and mentality of these isolated Northern people, we find that realization of the stern necessities and absolute logic of Arctic existence has made us, for the time, Eskimos. This is not a figure of speech; it is a verity compelled by the whole story as told in the unselfconscious, direct, simple diction of the author.
This complete entrance into the psychology and daily activities of the Eskimos automatically ensures a more accurate awareness of the Greenland scene — the landscape, seasons, temperature, multiple forms of ice, birds, and animals. The kindergarten fact of many months of night never really penetrated my imagination until I read what Freuchen tells of the widespread voice recognition, a reliance on the sufficiency of the greeting ’Oanga’ (‘It is I’); or again the sudden perception on a day in January of the patterns and colors of his sledge dogs. The Eskimos rejoice at the passing of the eternal, blinding sunlight, for the coming of darkness and ice means walrus and seal hunting and the opportunity for paying extensive visits.
In this wild, bleak land the life of the native is a tale of food in overabundance or of starvation, of skill and luck in hunting or death; marriage is a thing of mere mutual acquiescence, and birth an individual achievement of minutes. The author’s amazing mental adaptation and physical stamina are emphasized by references to the occasional visits of scientific expeditions, and the tactlessness and inadequate physique of some of the members. His kindness also comes out under the same circumstances, and bis perfect understanding, from within, of the reactions of the Eskimos.
Freuchen when nineteen years old went to Greenland with a Danish expedition. On his return to Copenhagen he met Knud Rasmussen, and the two became inseparable friends and joint owners in a trading post at Thule, on the northwest coast of Greenland. His book tells of life there, and of expeditions — geographic, hunting, and trading — both north and south. Freuchen finally married a fine type of Eskimo girl and became the father of two children. The tragic death of the wife, Navarana, a long and terrible journey to Hudson’s Bay, and subsequent return to a farm in Denmark complete the tale. The most dramatic of adventures and the amazing will-to-live in these Northern folk are ever vivid before us, under conditions which would speedily exterminate any less perfectly adapted human beings.
From the riches of the volume these vignettes must suffice: —
‘There is always ice in the big lake at Inglefield Gulf, but during the summer only a large pan of it remains, floating about and shifting from side to side with the wind. Along the shore the shallow water affords a grand playground for the children. Young salmon gather here too, seeking refuge from the large fish. The children run out into the shallows and gather the baby salmon up with their bare hands and eat them raw. They think it most amusing to feel the fish squirming about their mouths and throats.
‘ It is amazing that the children can spend whole days in the ice-cold water without apparent harm. At least they receive the benefit of a long bath, perhaps their last, for when they stop playing with fish their opportunities for baths are gone forever.’ Again there is the unexpected practicality which stands out, as when we read, ‘There is enough hide for three pairs of pants on a polar hear.’
Excellent maps and photographs add to the completeness of the narrative. Freuchen has gone to the Eskimos without lorgnettes of critical condescension, and has refrained from unfair comparisons of racial habits, and he has revealed the truth of Kipling’s immortal line, which makes
The crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.