On August 16, 2016, a cruise ship called the Crystal Serenity departed from Seward, Alaska. The price for a place on its month-long voyage started at $22,000, but the Serenity had no trouble filling its berths: 1,700 people signed up to take part in the first-ever passenger cruise through the Northwest Passage, the straits and sounds that for centuries had tempted and foiled even the hardiest captains and crews. Climate change has so dramatically shrunk the Arctic’s sea ice that the Serenity, with the help of a single icebreaker, was able to make short work of the Northwest Passage. Its passengers sailed smoothly through the polar sunshine, untroubled by fears of an icy death.
Just a week after the uneventful completion of the Crystal Serenity cruise, news broke that an Arctic Research Foundation team, acting on a tip from an Inuk crewmember, had documented the wreck of the HMS Terror in the Canadian Arctic. The ship had last been seen in 1845, when it was part of Sir John Franklin’s famously ill-fated attempt to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage; the Terror and its sister ship became locked in sea ice in Victoria Strait, and all 129 crewmembers, including Franklin himself, froze or starved to death.
Despite its deep silences, despite its vast distances and relatively few people, despite the tendency of outsiders to see it as a blank slate, the Arctic is a place of collisions: between ships and sea ice, Europeans and indigenous people, animals and humans, expectations and realities. The Crystal Serenity, whose diesel engines pumped carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere as they powered the ship through the Northwest Passage, is part of a quiet but devastating collision between the Arctic and the industrial world. The voyage of the aptly named Terror, which ended in mortal fear and agony, was a collision between hubris and the elements. Because the conditions in the Arctic are so harsh, because the isolation is so extreme, survival is always chancy, and the consequences of these collisions are often grave, even bloody. The Arctic might be silent, but it is rarely quiet.
Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, are set centuries and tens of thousands of miles apart, but both are driven by the Arctic’s colliding forces. The North Water, a novel by the English critic and writer Ian McGuire that was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, is as compact and confining as the nineteenth-century whaling ship that serves as its stage. From its opening lines, when harpooner Henry Drax shuffles out of a tavern in Northern England after a night of debauchery and “snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss stink of just-emptied night jars,” the book confronts its reader with the mortal and the bodily. Piss, blood, farts, life, death: There’s no getting away from them, not even in the Arctic, and especially not in the tight quarters of the Volunteer, the ship that Drax will soon board for the whaling season.
The Volunteer, like the HMS Terror, is perfectly if unfortunately named. Most of the ship’s inhabitants have volunteered, many to escape trouble on land. Only a few, however, know the true, craven purpose of the voyage, and only one foresees its hellish conclusion. All are outsiders in the Arctic, and as they collide with it, each dedicates himself to survival with matter-of-fact brutality.
Though most of the characters are at least as ruthless as the animals around them, they seem determined, at first, to maintain the distinction. When a group of Greenland sharks—“gray-green bodies, blunt and archaic”—try to feed on a dead whale the crew has found, the first mate, Cavendish, tells the men to drive the scavengers off the carcass. One sailor picks up a blubber spade and stabs at a shark. “A looseknit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound,” McGuire writes. “The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides. ‘Christ, those sharks are fucking beasts,’ Cavendish says.”
In this company, Patrick Sumner, the Irish ship’s doctor, is distinguished not by a lack of moral trespasses but by his ability to regret them. In flashbacks, the reader learns that as a surgeon with the British Army during the siege of Delhi, in 1857, Sumner tried to impress a superior by joining a hunt for treasure, an expedition that led to the death of several comrades and patients. Sumner leaves the army in disgrace, and even at sea, he doses himself with laudanum to escape his memories, floating dreamily between death and life. Early in the voyage, it is Sumner who suffers the most intimate collision with the Arctic elements—he slips and falls into the sea, nearly freezing to death—and it is Sumner who, in time, almost literally becomes a beast. But when rape and then murder violate the ship’s few remaining standards of conduct, it is Sumner who tries, haphazardly, to uphold justice, and it is Sumner who finally discovers proof of the fatal collision—a child’s tooth, embedded and festering inside a man’s arm.
Two different characters in The North Water drink blood to survive, and both times it is described as an almost ceremonial act—“a godsend,” as one character thinks when he revisits the experience in a dream. It is a decision to persist, to live even when the means erode one’s humanity. In one case, the character’s unlikely survival makes him not less than human but superhuman, at least in the eyes of those who rescue him, and his rescuers later exploit what they see as his magical powers. The Inuit, who appear late in the book, are portrayed as neither more nor less primitive than the Europeans; they, too, are consumed with the business of survival.
The North Water is a chilling book, sometimes literally so. It is full of bodily suffering and inhuman behavior, and it occasionally has the distant quality of an experiment: Put a clutch of desperate men on a boat, add some evil, then isolate and observe. But its direct, vivid language, urgent events, and dangerous characters are mesmerizing, and ultimately the reader has little choice but to draw closer, and stay until the end.
At The End of the World, by travel writer and frequent Arctic visitor Lawrence Millman, lacks the bloody immediacy of The North Water, both because Millman is constrained by the available facts and because the memories of the events he describes have faded. But even in bare outline, this tragedy is compelling.
In the winter of 1941, on a remote chain of Hudson Bay islands called the Belchers, nine Inuit died at the hands of friends and relatives. At the time, only about 150 people lived on the islands, sheltering in tents and snow houses and surviving by hunting, fishing, and occasional trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company post. Because the islands lacked caribou, life was more tenuous in the Belchers than in other parts of the Arctic, and that may have been one reason why some of the island residents were drawn, while close to starvation during the winter of 1941, to an Inuit translation of the New Testament. One evening, Charlie Ouyerack, a slight, sickly young father, suddenly declared that he was Jesus Christ and that Peter Sala, the community’s most respected hunter, was God. For proof, Ouyerack pointed to the shooting stars outside. The world was coming to an end, he said, and soon they would no longer be hungry.
Most of the community either believed Ouyerack or were willing to pretend to believe him, but Sara Apawkok, a young teenager, openly dissented. “You are Peter Sala on the outside and you are Peter Sala on the inside,” she told Sala. Ouyerack declared her to be Satan, and her brother, a fervent follower of Sala, beat her to death, assisted by another teenage girl. When a middle-aged man spoke out against both the murder and the preaching, he, too, was killed. Another convert killed his own son-in-law.
In mid-March, Peter Sala told a Hudson’s Bay employee about the murders, who in turn alerted the Mounties. But almost every plane in the country had been dedicated to the war effort, and the police didn’t arrive until early April. On March 29, Sala’s twenty-five-year-old sister, Mina, an enthusiastic believer, forced a dozen women and children out of their shelters and onto the sea ice, pulling off their clothes and boots. “It doesn’t matter if they freeze,” Mina reportedly said. “The world will soon be coming to an end, and then they will be fine.” Six later died of exposure: Mina’s mother, sister, and four nephews.
The Canadian government decided to use the Belcher case to demonstrate the long reach of its laws. In August, a white judge and an all-white jury arrived in the islands, and the accused were tried in a large Mountie tent. The jury found Ouyerack, Sala, and two others guilty of manslaughter, and two other defendants not guilty by reason of insanity. Mina—who was restrained, screaming, on a stretcher throughout the proceedings—was declared insane and not fit to stand trial. All of the accused except one, who was given a suspended sentence, were exiled from the islands. Ouyerack died less than a year later, possibly of tuberculosis. Only Peter Sala would ever return to the Belchers, as an old man haunted by regret. Now his body lies beneath the rocks and lichens, under a simple white cross.
Sixty years later, in 2001, Millman traveled to the Belchers to, as he puts it, “investigate the murderous aftermath of a meteor shower.” The collision between outsiders and the residents of the Belchers began in earnest in 1914, when the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty wrecked on the islands’ rocky shores and overwintered with the Belcher Inuit. Flaherty shot 30,000 feet of film, which he later accidentally destroyed with a single lit cigarette. (A few years later, Flaherty would make the celebrated documentary Nanook of the North, which portrayed an Inuit postman as a noble savage.) Millman finds that some island residents still refer to events as “before Mr. Flaherty” or “after Mr. Flaherty.”
Only a handful of outsiders have attempted to probe the murders and their aftermath, and Millman, like his predecessors, finds that very few residents, all of them elderly, are willing to talk about the events of 1941. He talks with a woman who had been a teenager at the time of the murders, who cries when he mentions Sara Apawkok; later, he learns that the two were best friends. He finds people who remember Mina and Peter Sala and Ouyerack, and even the Hudson’s Bay employee who alerted the Mounties. Millman is a good listener and a fine observer of both people and nature, and through what he hears and sees we can begin to imagine, if dimly, those terrible weeks when a community collided with itself.
Millman chooses to interweave his investigation of the Belchers and their history with a running commentary on what he sees as the toxic effects of digital culture, effects that began in the era of Robert Flaherty and have only worsened since. As he relates in the book, he struggled with his material for several years until, during a visit to Greenland, he heard about a teenage girl who was approached by a polar bear while she was absorbed in texting. At the last moment, the girl looked up from her phone and screamed, and the bear loped away. Millman writes:
A person. A screen. The person lost in that screen. Along comes Nature in the form of a polar bear. “Ignore me at your own peril,” Nature says. The person survives by recognizing Nature.
The incident carried with it this message: you can’t write about the Belcher murders without also writing about the screen-driven lives around you. Each represents a particular world coming to an end.
Presto! The dust vanished from my notebook.
I had trouble with both this comparison and its individual characterizations. To me, neither the Belcher murders nor the advent of digital technology look like the end of a particular world. Certainly, the details of the Belcher tragedy—the emergence of Jesus and his God, the killing of supposed Satans—were borrowed from Christian missionaries. But it’s not at all clear that keeping the Bible off the Belchers would have prevented the murders. In fact, Millman mentions that twenty years earlier, the Mounties visited the Belchers in response to reports of “deranged individuals who were threatening to go on a killing spree.” The individuals had been killed by the time the police arrived, and Millman speculates that the islands’ residents “knew how to deal with such misfits before the arrival of an alien religion.”
Isn’t it possible that an isolated group of people, subjected to an extreme collision with the elements, simply lost their minds? Isn’t it possible that Ouyerack and his followers, as they ate anything they could in order to survive, ingested some sort of toxin that rendered them temporarily, and violently, insane? There’s no doubt that both Christianization and Westernization, in the Arctic and elsewhere, has carried a high price, but the direct evidence of its culpability here is thin indeed.
Neither was I convinced by Millman’s condemnation of digital culture, either in the Arctic or south of it. While he has a lot of grouchy fun criticizing the “Cyberians” who occupy “Cyberia,” his ire seems to obscure his otherwise excellent powers of observation, turning his individual subjects into symbols. Though I’m also a skeptical user of screens, I found myself pushing back against Millman’s doleful anecdotes. Not all children with access to digital devices are unbearable Augustus Gloops, screaming for more; not all adults with access to digital devices are unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation; not all young mothers who send a text while nursing are raising children who will “grow up associating screens with nurture.” Frustratingly, Millman’s running commentary has the very effect he professes to despise: It mediates the main story of the Belchers and their people, forcing the reader to squint not only over the distances of time and space but also through the distracting complaints of the narrator.
The digital world is, to be sure, full of horrors, but it has some significant practical advantages: If the outbreak of violence in the Belchers had happened today, help would have arrived long before Mina drove her relatives out on the sea ice, and long before a community was sentenced to generations of trauma and heartbreak. The collision between the developed world and the digital world is relatively recent, and all of us are still learning to navigate the territory, still toggling between terror and serenity. Humanity may not, in the end, find its way through the passage, but I’m not yet willing to abandon ship.