Lawrence Millman


If a complete stranger came up to you and began detailing what he thought were your numerous sins, you'd probably be pretty annoyed, but the Inuit were usually quite accommodating to their sin-obsessed visitors -- i.e., missionaries. On one occasion, however, they reached their limit. In 1913, two beleaguered Oblate missionaries, Fathers Rouviere and Le Roux, were sledging south from the Coppermine district. Since their dogs were worn out, they harnessed a pair of Inuit, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, to their komatik. The Inuit became worn out themselves, but the Fathers insisted that they continue pulling. One thing led to another, and the Inuit ended up killing the not necessarily good Fathers.

Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, just published by Random House, is an account of these killings and the subsequent trial of the two Inuit in Edmonton. According to the jacket note, its author, McKay Jenkins, is the Tilghman Professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware. As I read his book, I found myself wondering what kind of students Professor McKay is churning out. For he seems not to be someone who believes in homework, or at least his own homework. Seemingly unaware that "Barren Lands" refers to a specific landscape, he uses the phrase to describe nearly all of the Canadian North. He talks about Arctic winters being "five months of utter darkness," and likewise thinks the Inuit and the Innu are the same people. Travel conditions never fail to be "inhuman" or "dreadful." That McKay's only trip to the Arctic was a flying visit to Kugluktuk in the summer is dramatically, indeed painfully obvious. Nor does our author appear to have a very high regard for accuracy. Sir John Franklin did not come to "a catastrophic end" in the Barren Lands, or even in what McKay misconstrues as the Barren Lands. Gabriel Breynat was not the only white man living in the Barren Lands (there's that phrase again!) in the early years of the 20th century. Also, McKay steals tidbits of information about John Hornby from George Whalley's excellent book The Legend of John Hornby and somehow manages to turn them into erroneous information -- quite a feat. Incidentally, who is Farley Mowatt [sic]?

So why have I gone to the trouble of describing what seems to me a not very good book? Because some other reviewer -- for Time, say, or the New York Times Book Review -- is going to recommend it to you. For it purveys a currently crowd-pleasing subject -- namely, that bad things happen to people in cold places. First came Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's account of an expensive Everest disaster, then came a veritable slew of books about Arctic and Antarctic disasters. Now every writer, but especially writers with no knowledge of cold places, wants to get into the act.

Consider a Los Angeles TV producer named Jennifer Niven. A few years ago she wrote The Ice Master, a book about the Karluk incident in the Siberian Arctic. Her credentials included an almost total ignorance of the Arctic, its history, and its geography. Thus she has Captain Bob Bartlett leading Peary to the North Pole; she refers to the Chukchi as Eskimos; she describes ice in a manner (she evokes ice rides "as high as mountains") that suggests her only experience of it may derive from cocktails; and so on. In spite of or perhaps because of such inaccuracies, The Ice Master was a big seller, and Niven went on to write its sequel, an equally error-filled book entitled Ada Blackjack.

If you're a publisher, you want to take advantage of a trend before it peaks, so you rush your trend-embracing book into print without subjecting it to anything other than a cursory fact check. Meanwhile, you collect a clutch of laudatory blurbs, usually from the author's friends, and put them on the jacket. Never mind that these blurbs have nothing to do with the book (phrases like "an indispensable work of historical reportage" and "well-researched" show up on the back of Bloody Falls of the Coppermine).

A book of this sort does a great disservice to the future. A hundred years from now, the people who read it will assume that it's accurate, and they'll view the world it describes accordingly. Also, they'll think the Arctic was a perfectly appalling place before global warming melted it.