Well I’m under way finally with my 20 Books of Summer, and this one with its close print and historical narratives certainly didn’t give me a quick entry into the project this year! I was inspired to read this book by Bookish Beck’s review back in February 2018 – I ordered it quickly and then of course it sat on the TBR. But I’m very glad I picked it up and it was a very rewarding read about a place to which, like BB, I have no desire to go, but which I do like reading about! Oh, and I’ve realised my 20 Books list is a little more diverse than I thought, as this book is absolutely rooted in the lived experience of Greenlandic and other Inuit people, spending time with them, honouring their customs and sharing, rather than imposing on, their way of life.

Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”

(10 March 2018)

A narrative of her seven years spent in Greenland for at least part of the time, a summer here, a dark, dark winter there, right up in the Inuit communities, living communally (very much so, with open toilets in hallways, naked drumming and a very basic life on the sleds), going on hunting expeditions and always conscious of and examining the pull between a modern and rapidly vanishing traditional culture, where those seeking to maintain the old ways have to present their case in the modern world and in some cases push back hard against it. The development of her friend Olejorgen, who has left Denmark to come to Greenland and learn to be a hunter describes a fascinating arc through the book: will he lose his professorial ways and become what he seeks to be?

As you’d kind of expect, quite a lot of dogs die (although this is not dwelt on in detail and some of the deaths are from preventable epidemics, showing another side to life in Greenland), and there’s a fairly upsetting scene with polar bear hunting later on in the book. However, even this doesn’t feel gratuitous if you accept that maintaining a way of life where you have to battle with the elements, one mistake can kill you very easily, and you and (first) the dogs are going to live off the meat while you make yourself a new pair of polar bear trousers is important and that this pretty small community should be allowed to survive as it wishes. It’s a difficult call to make and the author shows herself to be sympathetic while not glossing over the bad points of the culture and retaining self-reflection and critical thinking (she does get her head turned a bit by a hunky museum curator, however).

There are lots of passages describing the early 20th century explorer and ethnographer Knut Rasmusson – indeed, the impetus for her travels was reading his journals and she lugs the books around with her when all the rest of her luggage is lost. I didn’t personally find these as interesting as the passages about her own life and friendships, and I was glad when they petered out towards the end, however they did give a lot of interesting information, especially on the habit of picking up an Inuit wife for a journey, having a baby or two and then wondering what to do. I was fascinated by her reactions to the constant night and constant day of the two opposite seasons, written in perfect beautiful language, and then on a more practical level, I appreciated the epilogue from 2001 updating us on the various people we meet along the way, and I’m really glad I read this.


Now it’s on to my Iris Murdoch of the month, and I need to spend some solid time with that over the weekend! How are your 20BooksOfSummer (winter) coming along?