SinC25, #9: M. J. McGrath

I thought I would include another new-to-me woman writer as I take the Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary book bloggers’ challenge (which you are welcome to try yourself – at the easy, moderate, or expert level). When I read a review of White Heat, it sounded fascinating, combining a strong and resourceful female heroine with a harsh Arctic landscape, and very good it proved to be. It reminded me a bit of Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, a mixed-race Australian living with an aboriginal group, in the way it approaches the complexity of contemporary indigenous people living on a land they understand better than anyone else.

In this complex mystery, Edie Kiglatuk makes her living as a guide for white hunters who want to test themselves against the harsh arctic environment. This is not a job typically held by a woman, but Edie is well attuned to the land and has a living to make. The community she lives in clings to the ice and rock of Ellesmere Island, a place so unforgiving that it was largely uninhabited until in 1953 the Canadian government decided it needed inhabitants to ensure a claim to it. (I gather the US had designs on it for strategic reasons.) They chose Inuit because they had the best chance of coping with the hostile environment. McGrath has written a non-fiction account of these settlers and the unfortunate experiment that left them stranded far from home and up against the elements, the government having forgotten their promise to return them to Hudson Bay if life proved too difficult.

In this harsh climate Edie has overcome years of alcoholism and made a tough life for herself, which includes her hopes for a nephew who is training to be a nurse. When she takes a pair of qalunaat (white men) hunting, one of them is shot. Her nephew comes to help by snowmobile, and when weather conditions allow, her aunt (who proves pigheaded independence runs among women in the family) flies in to take him to the nearest hospital. In spite of their best efforts the man dies, and everyone is eager to declare it an unfortunate hunting accident. But Edie has her doubts, and when more violence strikes even closer to home, she has to get to the bottom of it, which involves a trip to Greenland and some harrowing physical challenges.

The plot is perhaps a bit over-elaborate, with a mulit-national cast of bad guys, but the major characters are wonderfully drawn, with real sympathy and respect for native people living under difficult circumstances without romanticizing the very real challenges they face. The people and the land they live on come alive in this story. It would be a good one to read on a hot day; I read it at the start of winter, and it made me feel very cold, indeed. Once I checked a map, I realized just how far north Ellesmere Island really is.

McGrath wrote an essay about her experiences doing research for her books in the Telegraph. I’m very tempted to read her non-fiction book, The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, but I think I will wait until it’s warmer.

As for women writers whose work is in some way similar . . .

  • Dana Stabenow, who writes about her native Alaska with a vivid sense of place.
  • Asa Larsson, who also loves arctic Sweden and makes it sound quite beautiful.
  • R. J. Harlick, whose mysteries are set in area where the inhabitants of Ellesmere Island once lived.

One Response to SinC25, #9: M. J. McGrath

  1. Maxine says:

    Great post – I have read about this book before, and bookmarked it on Amazon, but have not yet got around to reading it.I may well give it a try in 2012 as I have enjoyed so many books set in those northern climes.

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