Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Consumption by Kevin Patterson

This novel is set in Rankin Inlet on the west coast of the Hudson Bay. Most of the residents are Inuit with a few Kablunauks (Caucasians) thrown in. The story focuses on Victoria Robertson and her family. Victoria’s father was a traditional hunter on the ice. However, Victoria is rather removed from this when she contracts tuberculosis and is sent south for treatment from the ages of ten to sixteen. She comes back to a family life in transition. Her father has taken a job in a mine and that means giving up their nomad life and living in mining housing. Victoria marries a Kablunauk and this story is as much about her three children fitting in to the Inuit community as it is about her.

The town is small and conflicts arise when Victoria’s husband advises a South African company on opening a new mine. Victoria’s son, Pauloosie, spends most of his time learning about traditional ways from his grandfather. Her two daughters attempt to adjust to the modern world, one with more success than the other. These stories are interspersed with journal entries from a Kablunauk doctor, Balthazar, who spends his winters there. Here is part of one such entry:
“It is important not to distort the matter with nostalgia and sentiment. The Inuit led harder, more painful lives when they lived on the land, and this is why they have chosen not to return to it. The children died one after the other and their mothers sobbed with grief undiminished by the regularity with which it was summoned. Hunters who were merely affectionate fathers, imaginative storytellers, and tender husbands – and not adept trackers and good shots – could not feed their families. It was not a romantic life. It rewarded only a narrow set of attributes: focus, endurance, and distance vision.
And yet. Something about the way we have constructed ourselves now leads us, and anyone who tries to live like us, to immobility and engorgement.”

The story includes murder, accidental death and suicide. It is a grand story and tells of more than just this one family and the people they interact with over the years. It illustrates many of the challenges that come with change to a region and the toll they can take, especially on the transitional generation. There are also a few successes such as Victoria’s brother Tagak, known as a poor hunter, who finds his place in the mine administration as a bookkeeper.

Consumption reminds me of any Ivan Doig novel about Montana, where the nature of the environment almost forces the stories to be epic.


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