A march to manhood

Updated: Nov 13 2005, 05:30am hrs
In 1930, a desperate year, Edward Beauclerk Maurice, an English schoolboy, took a desperate step. Inspired by a documentary on the Canadian Arctic, he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship with the Hudsons Bay Co.

Under the agreement, he would be posted to one of the companys six trading posts on Baffin Island. At 16, he became, in the words of the companys original charter, a gentleman adventurer.

The Last Gentleman Adventurer is the enthralling account of Maurices stay among the Inuit of the Far North, and his evolution from the callow, accident-prone youth the local Inuit called the Boy into the skilled hunter, amateur doctor and trader they renamed Issumatak, One Who Thinks.

Maurice waited more than half a century to tell his tale. After serving in the New Zealand Navy during World War II, he settled into the quiet life of a bookseller in a small English village and died in 2003, as his only book was being readied for publication in Britain.

Time and distance lend the narrative a peculiar charm. It is an old mans backward look at the young man he once was, and at a world that has all but vanished, and is all the more precious for that.

The Boy started off badly. Almost immediately after landing on Baffin Island, he managed to strand himself on a cliff face, and thereafter he showed an uncanny knack for falling into ice holes.

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Fortunately, his expectations were low and powers of endurance impressive. The local diet of seal stew, lumps of seal or deer fat, and meatballs made of mashed beans, corned beef and deer meat did not seem bad compared with English boarding school fare. Deer fat, he found, had a most palatable, nutty flavour.

The sense of isolation was profound. There were 15 Europeans and only one doctor on a territory many times the size of England. Once a year, a ship from the Canadian mainland dropped off supplies, and unreliable radio signals transmitted fitful news of the outside world.

Searching for reading material at his first post, Maurices choices ranged from Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations to a thriller, Blood Ran Down the Bishops Face.

Rather than brooding, Maurice threw himself into his new life. Sensitive and curious, he observed the local people, worked hard to understand their customs and became fluent in the Inuit language. He fell in love with his natural surroundings and became an enthusiastic hunter. In one rousing episode, he even strikes out on the open sea in pursuit of a whale.

The overall approach is anti-heroic. Hunting is treated less as an adventure than as an occupation (although theres no mistaking the exhilaration of skimming over the snow in a dogsled, bagging three or four caribou).

Maurice rarely mentions the cold. His attention is directed towards the Inuit and their culture, to the life in their tents and igloos, and the network of social relations that sustains them.

Command of the language and a gossipy fascination with local disputes take him a long way. Maurice quickly discovers that the patronising Europeans are, unknown to them, patronised in turn, satirised in song and story. She opens her mouth like/ A fish out of water/ To show off her tooth/ Like a walrus tusk, runs one ditty describing a female visitor from the Canadian south.

On long winter nights, he listens to native storytellers, and when invited to speak, holds his audience spellbound with Snow White and Aladdin and the Lamp. The author paints these scenes with a quiet, understated charm.

There is high drama, too. In his final posting, on Frobisher Bay, Maurice confronts a mysterious epidemic that kills many of the peoples best hunters. With only a small medicine kit, he assumes the role of doctor and finds himself locked in a political battle with the wily local shaman, who sees One Who Thinks and his strange aspirins as a threat.

Maurice must also deal with an emotional crisis as Innuk, the widow of a hunter, encourages him to make their friendship something deeper and more permanent. Temperatures run high when he forms a sled team with Innuk and her good friend, an Inuit version of Annie Oakley.

Together, they speed across the snow on expedition after expedition, one of the most improbable hunting partnerships ever seen in the Arctic.

Maurice draws the curtain discreetly on his relationship with Innuk. But his feelings for her, for the Inuit and for the harsh, unforgiving land they call home radiate a steady warmth more than 50 years later.

His memories remained clear and powerful. It would be interesting to know whether the reverse is true, and whether anyone on Baffin Island tells a tale or two about a stranger known as One Who Thinks.

William Grimes / The New York Times