REVIEW - ARCTIC ICE

Butterfield, Maryann M. and James G. Blackwell. Arctic Ice: a Novel.Ghostwolf Enterprises. Ridgecrest, California. Softbound. 201 pages. $10.95.

This book was born from a meeting between Butterfield and James Blackwell, a sailor in the Arctic from 1904 to 1906. He had begun his manuscript in 1932, but laid it aside until he joined a writers’ group in California years later. He asked her to turn it into a novel, likely fearing, as many writers of memoirs do, that the truth was rather dull.

Actually, when Blackwell’s voice is heard, this is a fascinating story of an average sailor of that time. There’s a good description of the tough part of San Francisco; the usual mix of alcohol, women, drugs, and fraudsters as well as innocents and seasoned sailors.

Blackwell was on a sealer, which required not only men who didn’t mind breaking the law in pursuit of fur seals, but could stand the stench and grease from the whole dirty business. It takes a pragmatic sort, and that he was. It was just work. He did have a lot of curiosity about the Inupiat Eskimos encountered, but unfortunately speaks in the racist terms of the day. Butterfield says she left in these offensive words because they were authentic. That may be true of working men then, but there are some words to describe people that we simply will not condone today. They should have been dumped. We have abandoned the idea that killing fur seals to the point of extermination is acceptable. The same applies to derogatory words about people.

This is a shame because otherwise there is much useful information about Inupiat clothing and its manufacture.

There is also some fascinating reading about how a real ice skipper handles his vessel in the ice, descriptions of Amundsen and the famous Billy Mogg (perhaps a bit exaggerated), and the ships and crews gathered at Herschel Island. The description of a whaling dory and its fitting-out is the real thing.

If only the racist epithets were excised, this would be a most interesting read. Almost nothing is known about the life of an ordinary seaman at the start of the twentieth century. You might want to read it for that alone. Just try to ignore the offensive terms.

D.L.

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