Reading M. J. McGrath's new novel I learned there is life on the tundra, not only polar bears, caribou, and weather stations, but real communities with residents, electricity, computers, schools, and police forces. These rugged folks, known as Inuits (not Eskimos) travel by snowmobile, but still use dog sleds. A good day is when the temperature rises to a minimum of minus twenty-five Celsius.
White Heat begins with a bang (literally) coming from the frozen tundra. The gunshot strikes a client brought to a stretch of Ellesmere Island by local hunting guide, Edie Kiglatuk. Edie scrambles to find a plane able to rescue them before the approaching blizzard. Just in time, Edie's wacky Aunt Martie, a local aviatrix, lands her Otter. Back at their small community of Autisaq, the client is pronounced dead. The Counsel of Elders rules the death an accident, but Edie knows better.
Next, the tragic death of Edie's stepson, assumed to be a suicide, prompts Edie to carry on her own investigation. Several visitors are murdered. When two Russians arrive for duck hunting and seem to be interested in more than ducks, Edie is suspicious. With only Derek (the local constable, willing but skeptical) to help, Edie follows the trail of the Russians to Greenland while wondering what she would do if she found them.
Edie muses, "Most Likely the Russians were minor players, grunts in some huge and complex enterprise that would eventually render the Arctic the same as everywhere else, a landscape held to ransom by human need."
McGrath's novel is a story waiting to be on the front page of a local newspaper. The character of Edie Kiglatuk could easily become a female James Bond. There is a healthy dose of information on the arctic including plants, animals, and the all-important weather patterns. The Inuits who inhabit the area provide the reader insight, as we see how they survive, govern, work, teach, and travel.
A glossary of Inuktitut words would have been informative since they are used frequently in the narrative. That said, there is a map of the area, plus a note discussing Inuktitut, as well as places in the book.
White Heat presents a land of superstition and apparitions as the backdrop for a genuine Arctic thriller.
M. J. McGrath is the author of The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, under the name of Melanie McGrath. Visit her website.
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