Tuesday 30 September 2014

Book Review - People of the Deer

I have wanted to read some Farley Mowat books for awhile and finally got around to my first one last month when I read And No Birds Sang. It was excellent and made me hunger to read another, which I just did with People of the Deer.

In 1886, the Ihalmiut of northern Canada numbered 7,000 souls; by 1946, when 25-year-old Farley Mowat travelled to the Arctic, their population had dwindled to only 40. Living among them, he observed the millennia-old migration of the caribou and endured the bleak winters, food shortages and continual, devastating intrusions of interlopers bent on exploiting the Arctic. In this seminal book, Mowat details a genocide wrought by misunderstanding and neglect. Debated long after its publication, this powerful story of the Ihalmiut continues to haunt the Canadian conscience.

This is a very powerful and extremely depressing story about the extinction brought on to a race of people by, of course, the white man. Mowat does a great job in telling the Ihalmiut story. He did not just observe them but took the time to learn their language, at least a small portion of it, as they did not speak English, and lived among them. Learning a little of their language allowed him to hear the Ihalmiut's story of the good times, when the deer (caribou) numbered in the thousands.

Mowat was very thorough in telling the story of their destruction, how the white man came and set up trading posts to trade food, guns and ammo for white fox pelts. This first contact, of course, brought disease to the people. When the price of fox furs fell, the trading posts just closed up shop. The people would go hungry and the disease could take a better hold of them.

The caribou, their main source of food and fuel, started to fade in numbers. He watched as the people he had grown so fond of died off.

This was Farley Mowat's first book and is extraordinary. Mowat not only tells us of the problems the people face through missionaries, the Canadian government and even the RCMP, but offers solutions at the end. You can sense Mowat's inner anger seething all the way through the book.

He made another trip to visit the Ihalmuit in 1958 where he apparently follows up on what happened to those first people he met. I'm not sure if I'm up for that one but do want to read more stories by him. I'll be looking for a happier story, though.

People of the Deer is really a must read for any Canadian.

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