Monday, September 3, 2012


Cover photo credit:
Kabloona, by Gontran de Poncins (Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc., New York, 1941, 339 pp.)

To answer the obvious question, kabloona is an Eskimo word for white man. The book was published in 1941 as a Book of the Month Club selection. It is about Poncins’ experiences when he went to spend a year with the Eskimos in the far North to study their language, culture, and customs. He began the book with an apology. He explained that this is a look basically into how our ancesters lived 20,000 years ago. How Eskimos live, and what they need to do to survive is beyond the understanding of soft Outsiders. The Outside is what Eskimos call the rest of the world. He feared some of the things he described might be found to be revolting, or shocking, but his explanations helped to put them into a light that, in the Eskimo’s context, made them logical and understandable. Some of the less bizarre things, the everyday things that we take so much for granted, are still difficult to understand and surprising. For example, coal gets so cold and hard, it will not burn. Pens and watches freeze solid, and a basic tool like a pencil, will have its lead frozen so hard it will refuse to write. At the end of Poncins' year, he returned to the Outside, and found that he had adopted some of their ways, and that they made more sense to him than did the ways of the Outsider. Poncins discovered his travels had not been a conquest of the elements or a strange culture, but a conquest of himself. The Arctic became a place of joy and peace he was never able to discover in the Outside.

As in other reviews, here are a couple insights to help encourage you to possibly read this book. He traveled, visited, and stayed with various Eskimo families, and at one point joined a French priest, Father Henry, who was ministering to the Eskimos. It is obvious to Poncins that the priest has gone to the other side. The snow hole he lived in made an igloo seem to be a palace by comparison. From the door to his ‘couch’, a rickety wood platform of three planks, his entire home measured four and one half feet. A packing case contained all his effects. He had no table knife, or fork. His only spoon had disappeared days before Poncins‘ visit, and a search into a hole found it with a dozen discarded fish heads. Whatever the priest had brought with him was now lost, broken, given away, or otherwise superfluous. For six years, he had eaten nothing but frozen fish. He found he could no longer stomach white man’s food, nor get it.

In the end, Poncins describes what I feel almost every paddler understands all too well. Even after a year of traveling, “after a few days I grew restless again. My peace was to be found on the trail, and I was anxious to be off.”

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