Sanaaq is an Inuit woman who lives a traditional lifestyle in Nunavik (Quebec’s Grand Nord) with her extended family, fishing, hunting, collecting mussels under the shore ice when the tide is out and sewing boots. The Qallunaat are first coming north, building trading posts and bringing competing versions of Christianity to the Inuit. We meet several generations of Sanaaq’s family and community, including her small daughter, Qumaq, her young husband Qalingu, her sister and cousins.
These vignettes, presented in roughly chronological order, are not quite a novel. There is no plot, although the details of daily life are sometimes absorbing — the construction of a qajaq (kayak); the enjoyment of seal, beluga and ptarmigan meat; hungry sled dogs stealing meat left drying in the sun; and the creation of a children’s game of skill from bones left after a meal. Nappaaluk’s intention was to record those details, and she chose this fictional form to make them accessible. Nappaaluk was an accomplished educator and bridge between Inuit and Qallunaat cultures. She is the author of a number of didactic texts and recipient of a PhD from McGill for her work promoting the teaching of the Inuit language and culture.
Anyone interested in traditional Inuit culture will enjoy this, although it is laden with untranslated Inuit terms, including a paragraph-long list of words (the contents of a kettle of boiling meat – various edible animal body parts), and one is repeatedly compelled to flip back and forth to the glossary. Translations in parentheses after the first appearance of a word, or footnotes, would have made the text much more approachable. Also, the English-language version was not translated from Nappaaluk’s Inuit original, written in syllabics, but from the French translation.
Sanaaq offers an unromanticized glimpse of Inuit life in Northern Québec, complete with the full range of human foibles. It was a challenging life filled with hard work, lean times, and moments of fun and pleasure. In its details (the meat around the lumbar vertebrae of a seal, yum!), it is unfamiliar, but the people themselves are very much like us, their southern neighbours.
Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel, by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, University of Manitoba Press.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, was published by Groundwood Books last fall.