Friday, June 06, 2014

Rubbing noses in Katherine Kirkpatrick's BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

Katherine Kirkpatrick's Between Two Worlds is another fail from Random House, a major publisher. Published in 2014, it is getting good reviews, which represents another fail in the reviewing world.

The protagonist in Kirkpatrick's story is supposed to be an Inuit teen, Billy Bah, who was the seamstress for Robert E. Peary, one of the white men who claimed to reach the North Pole (I used 'white' deliberately because all the fuss over "first" white men to reach this or that place always make me pause).

As I read Between Two Worlds I thought 
"this does not strike me as an insider's voice." 

There are certain things about Inuit people that most people take to be fact. Here's two: They rub noses. The men get trade goods by offering sex with their wives as their unit of trade. Generally, there's a kernel of truth in such things, but when they seep into an outsider's conscience as THE thing(s) they know about a people, that outsider "knowledge" is vividly on display as ignorance and stereotype.

The degree to which that "knowledge" has come to pass as legitimate information explains 1) why Kirkpatrick could write such a book, 2) why her editor at Random House would not spot the outsider perspective, 3) and why reviewers give the book a thumbs up.

So. Rubbing noses. Everyone knows that is the way Eskimos kiss, right?

Wrong! It is actually a gesture of affection called a kunik by those who do it. In this article, David Joanasi, of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says "When you're an infant and a little kid, your parents and older siblings sniff you and rub your face with their nose", and Erin Eckman, who is Inupiaq and works for the Alaska Native Heritage Center said "Growing up in Alaska, I only really saw women do it to babies."

Kirkpatrick uses "rubbed noses" 17 times. I noted who is rubbing noses in parentheses.

p. 28: "We rubbed noses..."(sisters, parting)
p. 49: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 52: "We rubbed noses, ..." (little girl/woman, greeting)
p. 68: "I rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 74: "Sammy, rubbed noses..." (woman/little boy, greeting)
p. 77: "...rubbing noses..." (girl/girl, greeting)
p. 85: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, working together)
p. 132: "one last time, rubbed noses..."(woman/little girl, parting)
p. 133: "We rubbed noses." (father/daughter, greeting)
p. 137: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 142: "...we rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting and prelude to sex)
p. 145: "...rub noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 147: "But we rubbed noses." (husband/wife, in bed)
p. 149: "We rubbed noses." (woman/little girl)
p. 200: "...rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, during argument)
p. 230: "...we rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 232: "We rubbed noses." (woman/boy)

For the most part, Kirkpatrick uses rubbed noses to convey affection. Though I think she over-uses the phrase, we might think she's using it correctly. But, that is not the case...

That wife-trading I pointed to above? It happens in this book, too. A lot. Early on, Billy Bah's husband, Angulluk (that is his name but mostly she thinks of him as "Fat One") tells her that he's had three offers for her from men on the ship that has arrived at their village. Angulluk has chosen red-headed Duncan to trade with. Later that night when Billy Bah is with Duncan in the sailors quarters, she's thinking that he might "pounce on me like a bear as other sailors had." Note what she says. Other sailors. Plural. As it turns out, Duncan isn't like those pouncing sailors. He sits back and they talk for awhile. Billy Bah asks Duncan why he wanted her rather than Ally, who Billy Bah thinks is prettier. Duncan tells Billy Bah that he wanted her because she can speak better English than Ally, is smart, and he likes her long hair. Billy Bah moves closer to Duncan, who says he would never hurt her (p. 42):
Then he pressed his lips against mine. I drew back.
"No! Kiss me on the nose, never on the lips."
"Our people don't do that," I said. "We don't like it." 
See? That passage tells me Kirkpatrick does not know as much about rubbing noses as we might think! I've read some of her interviews. In one, she says that the inspiration for her book is Boreal Ties, which is a book of photographs of the Peary relief expedition. I read that and wondered what else she used as resources. I flipped to the back of her book and read the Historical Notes. She relies heavily on the work of Josephine Peary (Robert E. Perry's wife). Reading the excerpts there felt just like reading the story itself. Outsider perspective.

I have to stop for now, but maybe I'll be back with more to say about Katherine Kirkpatrick's Between Two Worlds. But like I said up top, it is a fail from Random House. I do not recommend it. 


Anonymous said...

The language between characters is stilted in a "Me Tarzan. You Jane," type way. That and is is poorly written, for which there is no excuse.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes! The dialog is a mess.

Billy Bah's husband says, one-too-many-times, "Woman!" rather than her name.

Kirkpatrick has a section Notes about getting help in figuring out names to use, but the nicknames Billy Bah gives to characters are straight out of fail-land in terms of naming Native characters:

"Tooth Girl" has a gap in her front teeth.
"Runny Nose" has a runny nose.
"Fat One" is lazy.
"Bag of Bones" is skinny.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I think if someone can't get the culture right, they shouldn't write a book about it.