In this richly detailed memoir, Burch takes readers back to the mid-1960s, when, as a newlywed, she joined her anthropologist husband Tiger on an extended visit to the Inuit village of Kivalina, Alaska, to assist him in his participant study of the natives. As the then 23-year-old Burch, a sheltered Canadian urbanite, adjusts to culture shock and the unforgiving environment, she struggles with homesickness, a sense of alienation, and her husband’s preoccupation with work. Learning to live off the land, including skinning seals, Burch gradually settles into her new life. However, when tragedy strikes, the couple’s plans for the future are thrown into jeopardy, forcing them both to adapt and overcome.
Burch’s narrative opens with the author looking back upon her youth, memories of family, and burgeoning relationship with her husband-to-be from a perspective some fifty-plus years later. While evocative and wistful, the prose feels somewhat overblown. Once Burch shifts into a present-tense format to detail her everyday Alaskan life, however, the story gains confidence and focus. She exhibits a great eye for detail and atmosphere, bringing the frozen reaches of the Arctic Circle of 1964 to life in all their chilly, remote wonder. Readers will feel the shock of the world she portrays, one lacking almost every modern convenience.
Some elements of the Burches’ era and outsider perspective can feel jarring to contemporary readers—including the frequent use of Eskimo over Inuit and Tiger’s insistence that “the natives are satisfied with what they have and always seem to be happy.” One startling reminder of the mores of the era is that despite her unhappiness, Burch accepts that “Young women in the early 1960s didn’t question whether or not they could live the life their husband wanted. They went ahead with his wishes and hoped for the best.” Nevertheless, Burch’s resilience shines through the story, and her firsthand accounts of living off the land, Inuit-style, are vividly detailed, resulting in an intimate look at a remote culture before it was reached by the changing times.
Takeaway: An intimate portrait of everyday life amongst the Inuit people of the 1960s, as viewed through the lens of an inexperienced outsider.
Great for fans of: Fred Bruemmer's Arctic Memories: Living With the Inuit, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold.
Production grades Cover: A Design and typography: A Illustrations: A Editing: A Marketing copy: B+
A memoir of living in an Alaskan village and narrowly surviving disaster.
Burch, a portrait photographer,tells of the culture shock she experienced in the 1960s when she joined her husband, Ernest “Tiger” Burch, in his anthropological research in the Alaskan village of Kivalina. Throughout the book, Burch pulls no punches about her early discomfort with her living conditions and the difficulties she had socializing with local Inuit people. Throughout, she describes challenges of daily life, such as learning to eat freshly butchered seal meat and using an outdoor “honey bucket” instead of an indoor toilet. She also recounts how she had a hard time fitting into village society as well as her husband did; he was already a known quantity in the village when she arrived. She’d had little past experience with communal life and its attendant lack of privacy. Midway through, the book shifts to a story of a catastrophic accident and her husband’s later recovery against tough odds. This part of the book effectively describes the author’s transformation from a sheltered newcomer to a person “ready to face whatever lies ahead.”The book includes photographs of the author, her husband, and people they met in Kivalina. Often, this book provides engaging stories of the author’s time in Alaska with her late husband. Burch’s observations include notable details of how members of the village’s Inuit population embraced modernization by, for example, using umiaqs (sealskin boats) with outboard motors and traditional parkas with manufactured fabric covers. However, some references to the Indigenous population, who are often referred to as simply “the natives,” are off-putting and have a grating, condescending tone: “Does being Tiger’s wife mean I have to act like a native? I don’t want to be an Eskimo”; “It’s hard to imagine they’ve never eaten fresh fruit or vegetables….Maybe someday, I’ll invite them over to experience white people’s food.”
A sometimes-moving story of recovery that’s hampered by problematic moments.