________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 21 . . . . June 20, 2003


Maata’s Journal: A Novel.

Paul Sullivan.
New York, NY: Atheneum/Simon & Schuster (Distributed in Canada by Random House), 2003.
221 pp., cloth, $26.50.
ISBN 0-689-83463-2.

Subject Heading:
Inuit-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** / 4


At the end of the first month of school, Mr. Sanders set a large box on his desk and one at a time called us to the front of the room. As each of us came forward, he handed us a book. It was a very quiet ceremony, with Mr. Sanders in his sober manner eyeing our reactions carefully. When it came my time and he laid the small book in my hand, almost like a sacred thing, he gave the slightest nod of his head. When all the books were handed out and we had returned to our places, he said, "I have given you the world. It is in your hands. Never again can you say to others that you never had a chance in life."

I treasured my small book. My first book. It was all in English. Not an nuktitut word in it. Even the pictures were of Qallunaat children. I remember running all the way back home in the deep snow to share my book with Siaja and how she and I huddled for hours going over the pages, the words and the pictures. I was already surpassing Siaja's knowledge of English, and she was pleased that now I could take words from paper.

I studied for long hours each evening in the dim light of the lamp. In no time I had gone through the first few chapters. I learned them so well, I could almost recite them. And I would go on far ahead of the classwork to discover new words. Each new word was like a gift. And when that word joined with others, it was like a miracle. They painted pictures in my mind, and my mind ran with them.

The "gift of words" painting pictures in the mind resonates in this journal dated April 24 - July 22, 1924 written by Maata, a 17-year-old Inuit girl. During the summer of 1923, Maata accompanies four men who embark on an expedition to Tumak Island in the sub-Arctic "to map the area, record the weather, and study the geology." Unfortunately, carelessness causes a fire that consumes the cabin, costs Olson his life, and seriously wounds Morgan. By April 25, 1924, Maata and Morgan are stranded after the geologist and climatologist head off to find help, and she must rely on her knowledge, skill, and experience to sustain them during the ice-bound months.

     Encouraged by Morgan, Maata begins a journal that alternates, not always smoothly, between reporting on her present circumstances and explaining her history. "Life," she writes, "was good to us in this land others call harsh." However, in 1914, the Canadian government relocated Maata, her parents, Krakoluk and Nua, and her brother, Tiitaa, along with other Inuit from their nomadic lifestyle to Foster Bay, a Hudson's Bay Company community. Maata initially encounters Olson and Morgan when they help her family settle into a home in Foster Bay and orient them to a life of trading Krakoluk's furs for supplies and provisions.

     Nua realizes "the world of the Qallunaat [whites] is all around us" and encourages her daughter's "love of words and what [she] could do with them." Her son, Tiitaa, resolutely refuses to accept the new order and returns to the nomadic life. Unfortunately, a well-meaning and zealous cleric catapults Maata firmly into the world of the Qallunaat when he inadvertently causes Krakoluk's precious Peterhead boat to capsize, drowning Krakoluk and Nua. Orphaned at twelve, Maata with only "a small bundle of clothes and a few Canadian dollars" endures a five month interminable journey aboard the Venture to a Quebec City boarding school. During the first weeks, Sarah (her new English name) "often [falls] asleep with tears" and "feelings of a stranger in a strange land," robbed even of her name. Life improves when a fellow student befriends her, and Maata lives comfortably until Olson and Morgan arrive. When they offer her the opportunity to return home, she accepts with alacrity. Back at Tiitaa's winter camp, she admits, "I was so happy to be home again that I just wanted to be with the land."

     Maata is an engaging and well-drawn character who, by her own admission, "had seen some of the world and that had whet [her] curiosity." Despite her love for her "endless land," she painfully learns that she does "not belong with Tiitaa and his people, just as [she] did not belong with those in Quebec City." "I would need to find my own place and time," she decides. "I know they were waiting for me to discover them." At times she reveals her femininity, but oddly Sullivan avoids presenting any romantic tension during the long months during which she nurses Morgan who is recovering from burns, suffering depression, and developing scurvy. The skills taught by her parents help Maata keep them comfortable and well-provisioned during their enforced isolation. Maata assures Morgan they will be rescued from their island prison with the help of her father's free-soul. "We Inuit believe all humans have three souls," she explains - a name-soul that is given at birth, a free-soul that is an immortal spirit living on after death, and a life-soul that "suffers as we do and dies with us." Her journal ends abruptly July 22 when, in accordance with her faith, the Venture arrives to rescue them.

     Inevitably, Maata witnesses destructive forces the Inuit faced in the relocation program - the abuses and destructive power of alcohol, violent death, cruelty, greed, and prejudice. She experiences racism that runs the gamut from the "medically approved" shaving of women's heads during the relocation sea voyage, to the teacher who calls the Inuit savages, to the casual changing of her name at the school in Quebec City. In Quebec City, she experiences prejudice because she is Inuit; back in the Arctic she faces prejudice because of her English skills and her stories of life with the Qallunaat. Fortunately, Maata recognizes her uniqueness and truly is a "child of the snow, daughter of the wind," as her mentor, Siaja, mused. "I think you will always live between the world of the Inuit and the world of the Qallunaat."

     Using the journal technique, Sullivan allows Maata to present a vivid historical portrait of Inuit life, customs, and culture. The prose is strongest and best-paced when describing the landscape and specific episodes. At times, the sentences lack the polished "gift of words" Maata is credited with possessing; at other times her "love of words" rings passionately and smoothly. The powerful image of the delousing/hair cutting suffered by the Inuit women resonates with their humiliation and the mindless cruelty of the perpetrators. Demonstrating the divergence of culture and attitude, Maata's reluctance to free an entrapped deer in Quebec contrasts pointedly with her matter-of-fact descriptions of the slaughter in the caribou hunt or her participation in killing a bear back home in the Arctic. The accounts of nomadic life in the seasonal camps, the details of the hunt, and the description of the Arctic landscape echo with the joyful spirit of a people and the love of their land, Nunavut.

     Sullivan uses Inuktitut terms throughout the narrative, working the definitions into the prose rather than including a glossary. He provides a bibliography and a set of notes to open and to close the novel. Young readers will meet an appealing heroine in this tale of survival rich in the minutiae of Inuit life and culture.


Darleen Golke is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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