Kevin Patterson’s Consumption is a truly amazing novel. It may also be the first piece of Canadian literature that I’ve knowingly read, other than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and John Irving, if we’re going to call him Canadian). It is an epic history of a family, as well as the chronicle of the fundamental and sweeping changes to a culture and a people.
An Inuit child, Victoria, is taken from her family and her village when she tests positive for tuberculosis onboard a government medical ship. She is treated for the disease by a common medical practice of the time, cutting out sections of her ribs so that they would collapse the tubercular sections of her lungs. The removal of sections of her ribs leaves a dent in her side that is as powerful a metaphor for the removal of culture as you’re likely to find.
When the dented and city-wise Victoria is returned to her village after 10 years away, she finds that the world that she thought that she knew is gone. When she left, her people were nomadic and lived off the land. When she returned, nearly everyone had “come in off the land.”
Dog teams were killed (the animals were not bred to make good pets), houses were built, and new jobs had been taken. Government support had come in the form of housing, central clinics, etc. While away, Victoria had spoken mostly in English and Cree. On returning, she found it difficult to communicate with her own family. She had also grown a foot taller than anyone else in the town. She is an outsider in her home town.
Victoria marries the white manager of the store in the village, further isolating herself from her community. In time she has three children. Each of these children adapt and rebel in divergent ways. The extent of the change in the culture of the people from Victoria’s parents’ generation to that of her children is staggering. As you might imagine, there is a fair amount of tragedy to the tale. I won’t give any more of the plot away…
The “consumption” in the title can be interpreted in several ways. Most obviously, consumption refers to the disease tuberculosis, which is now endemic in some arctic communities. The word is also a reference to the consumption of minority cultures by dominant cultures. Another interpretation refers to what Patterson calls the “curse of affluence” – the idea that comfort is a luxury – and one that is not all that good for us physically or spiritually. Greed. The erosion of ethics. In parts, it literally refers to the food that is being consumed. Each of these interpretations is touched upon as one of several central themes in the book.
Patterson’s writing is crisp and to the point. His restraint in the book is commendable, and he avoids the obvious temptation to be overly expository. If you don’t understand this exchange in Inuit, it actually feeds the story in that you too feel like an outsider:
“Ublukatiarak, attatatiak,” Pauloosie said.
“Igvalue, irnuktuq,” Emo answered.
There’s not a ton of this in the book – just enough to make the point. (I also learned that the correct spelling of a shelter made of blocks of ice is “iglu.”) Patterson can also write about native people hunting walrus, beluga whales, caribou, etc. without coming off as a total jackass. You try it.
The descriptions of the harsh and unforgiving environment of Rankin Inlet is as real as any of the characters. Rankin Inlet is, in fact, a real place that is impossibly far north in Hudson Bay. I went looking on Google Earth for virtually all of the place names described, because the were completely foreign to me. Here is what Rankin Inlet looks like:
That’s remote. And cold looking.
Patterson, besides being a gifted author, is also a medical doctor who has spent time living and working in the Arctic. He pokes fun of people like him in the book. In several places in the novel characters take a dim view of people (especially doctors) who come to work in a community for only a few years before leaving to write their book about the experience.
In the Acknowledgments, Patterson says that this book began as a collection of essays about cultural change and epidemiology. A very minor complaint is that it appears that the book ends with those essays slapped onto the last chapter and attributed as the writings of the doctor in the story. This would be really annoying if those essays weren’t completely absorbing. If you’re not as into armchair epidemiology as I am, this may bug you – or not.
My copy of this book is the Canadian edition with the beautiful cover above. When the book comes out in the US in August, it will be sporting the lame-o cover below. Out of focus woman in the snow. How evocative. Boo! If you want to read this book sooner than later, you can get it from Amazon.ca with the BGB-preferred cover. Otherwise, I’ll remind you in August to shop locally. It’s that good.
Special note of thanks to Ragdoll for passing along her extra copy of this book. You rock.