Lawrence Millman,
A Kayak Full of Ghosts:
Eskimo Folk Tales

(1987; Interlink, 2004)

Writer Lawrence Millman has spent a lot of time traveling to remote Arctic places. In books such as Last Places (an attempt to retrace the progress of the Norse from Norway to Newfoundland), he has chronicled adventures both humorous and hair-raising. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts (first published in 1987), Millman turns his eye to the stories of the Inuit people. These stories are all narratives told to Millman during his travels.

These tales, it should be noted, are not for the faint of heart nor for children. Bodily functions, sex, violence and vulgarity are par for the course. Millman has not bowdlerized these stories (unlike some past folklorists), so the easily offended will find this collection hard going.

Millman tells when and where he originally heard each story, along with the person who told it to him, but these are retellings of the stories, not transcriptions. The tales are divided into broad categories based on subject matter: "Origins and Ancestors," "Children," "Magic and Taboos," "Human Beings," "Animals" and "Death and Old Age."

Open-minded readers will find a portrait of a culture that has survived one of the harshest environments in the world. Plots often turn on the necessity of those who cannot hunt finding someone to provide for them. Humans, animals and even inanimate objects are characters with their own agendas, and the characters often shapeshift with about as much ceremony as someone donning a different set of clothes. Sometimes transgressions are harshly punished, providing an easy moral about how to treat others. Just as often, however, fate or circumstance is capriciously cruel, and the characters have to survive or succumb.

The world of these stories is not a pleasant one, but the reader willing to meet it on its own terms may find a strange fascination in it.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 2 October 2004

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