Norma Dunning’s debut short story collection is sensitive, intelligent and intense. Right from the first story, “Kabloona Red,” in which an Inuit woman knocks back cheap red wine whenever her white husband is away, Dunning writes about authentic experience. The narrators are first person or closely focused third, so the Inuit characters’ confusion and pain as they struggle to maintain individual and cultural identities are felt directly. Unfortunately the battle is rigged—language is suppressed, children are sent to residential schools where they are brutalized in countless ways, and families are torn apart.
In these stories, white characters often behave badly. An RCMP officer marries an Inuit woman, has four children with her and then abandons his family to go back south. In “The Road Show Eskimo,” an Inuit woman falls in love with a man who uses her to further his faltering career, lying about a book he says she wrote and then putting her on display to the university crowd. Again children are born and abandoned.
Strong currents of anger and courage propel the Inuit characters. They are survivors. The title character, Annie Muktuk, appears in several stories, along with Moses Henry, a young man who loves her, and Moses’ best friend Johnny Cochrane, who has gone to university in the south. Annie uses her sex appeal as a weapon. As Johnny says, “She swung both ways and sideways.”
Sex is often a way for women to claim space and power. It is certainly also a way for many of the characters to have physical pleasure. In “Elipsee,” a beautifully tender story, the title character has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and no treatment is working. Her husband Josephee is desperate to help, so they decide to spend the summer out on the land because a shaman has told Elipsee she will find healing by the lake. This story combines the love of a couple for each other with their spiritual foundations, and Dunning has a lovely way of making sex sound fun and natural as the couple kid each other about the intensity of their activity. Josephee thinks, “What a workout, better than any elliptical machine at the gym.”
The stories reveal aspects of Inuit culture, especially language (Dunning uses many Inuit words and includes a short glossary), and show the essential humanity of the characters. Dunning herself is Inuit. In “Husky” she describes a white man who leaves the life of the south, takes three Inuit wives and, after one disastrous trip south with his wives, returns to the north to stay. At the end of the story Dunning adds a note that Husky, whom she knows only through “snippets” of stories, was her grandfather. Overall, I loved this book.
—Candace Fertile teaches at Camosun College in Victoria.