Saturday, July 14, 2018

12th Canadian Challenge - Consumption & AGO show on Inuit art

I pushed through a bit more than I expected and finished reading Kevin Patterson's Consumption (to get it back to the library without having to renew).  I guess I wrapped it up on what was technically the day after Canada Day, but nonetheless a very early entry into the 12th Canadian Challenge (with a 2 week lag in writing up the review!).  Details here for those interested in signing up for the 12th Canadian Challenge (still plenty of time).  As I noted elsewhere I am still reading a fairly large number of Canadian novels, but I am feeling slightly less motivated to review all of them and I may drop the challenge next year.

I'm not entirely sure how Consumption got on my reading list, but perhaps it was mentioned in the Toronto Star as a book that talked about the themes of Reconciliation but didn't have any easy answers, which seems accurate enough.  While there is a lot going on in the novel, there are a number of steps taken by well-meaning individuals that have unintended consequences, and yet it is too easy to say that these people should have done nothing.  The novel starts with a young Inuit girl, Victoria, taken from her family and sent to Winnepeg to treat her very advanced case of tuberculosis.  If she hadn't been taken for treatment, she most certainly would not have lived long.  However, once treated, she fell through the cracks for 6 years, losing her connection to her family and her traditional ways as she grows up in Winnepeg.  Then she was returned home, somewhat against her will.  She never fully integrated back into the community, and quite a few people in the small community near Rankin Inlet feel she should have stayed away.  She actually mostly socialized with the Kablunauks (aka white people) and ultimately married Robertson, a white man who eventually became manager of the local store (I believe it was essentially a Hudsons Bay trading post).  She had been warned that most Kablunauks "married" and had children, but then felt no compunction about pulling up stakes and leaving (without their families) if they were transferred.  Nonetheless, she feels affection for him and thinks Robertson is different, and indeed, he is uniquely committed to staying in this remote community.  Her decision to marry Robertson was certainly helped along by her feeling fairly alienated from the rest of her clan.

The novel makes a number of interesting and challenging choices.  First in centering so much of the story on Victoria (and making her an untypical Inuit).  Second, Victoria is not actually particularly admirable as a character, or at least I didn't like her as a person.  She makes a number of bad decisions, and then later blames others, even shunning them, when things go awry.  A bit more self-reflection or the ability to forgive would have been welcome.

The cast of characters starts expanding, and characters that only had a relatively small role in Victoria's life get more important.  By the end, it almost feels like an episode of Northern Exposure, and the doctor (Keith Balthazar) has just about as much weight as Victoria.

Here is a list of the "main" characters:
Emo (Victoria's father)
Winnie (Victoria's mother)
Robertson (Victoria's husband)
Tagak (Victoria's brother)
Justine (Victoria's daughter)
Marie (Victoria's daughter)
Pauloosie (Victoria's son)
Simionie (Victoria's lover)
Doctor Keith Balthazar
Amanda (Balthazar's niece)
Father Bernard (priest)
Two teachers at the school - Penny and Johanna
Simon Alvah (a Kablunauk with boat wintering in Rankin Bay)

I'm actually skipping over a few characters from Victoria's early life, as well as Amanda's parents and her boyfriend.  I'm not sure how I feel about this huge cast.  I think it might have been better to start off with a broader view, taking in the whole village, from the beginning, rather than switching midway through.  As you can imagine, the focus definitely starts to slip as pages are allotted to everyone, and the time spent on Amanda, who lives in New Jersey(!), seems completely extraneous to the plot (and really the two teachers as well, though they did interact with Victoria's children from time to time).  By the time the novel proper wraps up (with Balthazar meeting the retired priest in the South Pacific), the novel feels pretty baggy.  Then the reader is treated to over 50 pages (in even smaller font!) of the doctor's notes.  While there is some interest in getting his take on what actually transpired up north, it really dragged on and overstayed its welcome.  The novel would have been more effective had it been more focused, at least in my view.

What was a bit ironic is that I was reading this novel about the north (where most of the time the characters are dealing with terrible winters) in the midst of a severe heat wave.  And indeed, two weeks later, the heat has returned.  But to help put myself in the proper frame of mind, I went to the AGO.  For the first time ever, the main exhibit features Inuit artists: Kenojuak Ashevak and her nephew Timootee (Tim) Pitsiulak, who died tragically young from pneumonia.  (The AC helped a bit to put me in the right spirit...)

While I generally like Inuit carvings more than Inuit prints, some of these were quite nice.  Here are a few that stood out for me.  (The whale piece is quite large and really needs to be seen in person.)

Kenojuak Ashevak, Untitled, 1994-5

Kenojuak Ashevak, Nunavut-Our Land, 1992

Tim Pitsiulak, Swimming with Giants, 2014

The exhibit runs through mid August, so there is still about a month left to check it out.  I'll try to get back one or two more times before it closes.

Edit: I managed to borrow a copy of the exhibit catalog, and none of these three works is reproduced in it (there is a small shot of Swimming with Giants in the background).  I think that is a real missed opportunity (and I can't really recommend the catalog now that I know it is missing works from the exhibit), but it just means there is even more reason to go see these works in person!

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