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GIVE ME MY FATHER'S BODY The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo By Kenn Harper; Washington Square Press: 278 pp., $13.95 paper

ARCTIC CROSSING A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture By Jonathan Waterman; Alfred A. Knopf: 358 pp., $29.95

LETTY FOX Her Luck By Christina Stead; New York Review Books: 602 pp., $16.95

March 25, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

GIVE ME MY FATHER'S BODY The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo By Kenn Harper; Washington Square Press: 278 pp., $13.95 paper

In September 1897, polar explorer Robert Peary returned to New York from northwest Greenland, carrying a three-ton meteorite and six Eskimos. Thirty thousand people bought tickets to meet the ship as it arrived in Brooklyn. The Eskimos-a mother and father and their 12-year-old girl; her prospective husband; a boy of 7 (Minik) whose mother had died in Greenland and his father-came from a tribe of 234 people. Peary, a powerful, handsome and by all accounts ruthless man, felt that dark-skinned people were childlike, if not inferior. By November, all six were in Bellevue Hospital with varying degrees of pneumonia. Four of the Eskimos died, including Minik's father. The Museum of Natural History staged a fake burial to deceive the boy, had the bones of his father cleaned and the skeleton placed on exhibit. At 14 Minik got a job in subway construction. He began to ask for his father's bones so he could give his father a proper burial. The press followed his plea all the way to Peary, who for almost a decade refused to take Minik back to Greenland. It was not until 1993 that the bones of the four Eskimos were taken back to Greenland. Stories like Minik's (we think of Theodora Kroeber's "Ishi In Two Worlds') are precious, tragic reminders of what it means to be human and of the constant evolution required for us to understand other cultures. This story seems to tell itself, but Kenn Harper, who has lived among the Inuit ('Eskimo" is old-fashioned and less politically correct) for 30 years (now in their capital, Nunavit) deftly guides us through the story from an Inuit perspective.

ARCTIC CROSSING A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture By Jonathan Waterman; Alfred A. Knopf: 358 pp., $29.95

Raconteurs and adventurers are rarely blessed with a talent for communicating their fears. Their endeavors require so much will and self-confidence that their stories often sound more mythical than human. Not Jonathan Waterman's. In this account of his 10-month solo journey by kayak, skis, dog sled and under sail, 2,200 miles through the Northwest Passage, we live all his fears, from ordinary "kayak angst," which the Inuit call nangiarneq, to a recurring desire to vanish into the north, to slip off the face of the Earth. When people ask what he is doing, he says modestly that he hopes to see a few birds and have an encounter with a polar bear. His accounts of modern-day Inuit life are equally humble. Certain individuals seem to contain all the purity and generosity of their culture, others are "caught in a depraved limbo, somewhere between paradise and the ugly side of modern civilization." He stays with families that teach him about the bowhead whale hunt and the Inuits' relationship to their environment. He visits a village in which five 12-year-old girls in a single classroom are pregnant. He writes of thick sun like honey on the water, of the "pallid beauty" of the polar bear he finally meets and of the silence of the vast Arctic.

LETTY FOX Her Luck By Christina Stead; New York Review Books: 602 pp., $16.95

Christina Stead (1902-1983) wrote several novels, including "The Man Who Loved Children," a rage-filled novel based on her complicated relationship with her father, who ran off late in life with a 16-year-old girl. "Letty Fox" was first published in 1946. It is the story of a brassy-voiced, 24-year-old woman contemplating her future, a Helen Fielding of 1940s New York City. Letty, as Tim Parks writes in the introduction, is the flightiest narrator you'll ever depend on, but she also possesses the leaden practicality of a woman who wants beautiful things and has few ways to get them for herself, short of procuring a wealthy man. She spins romantic fantasies and has affairs all around town, but romance is subjugated to the brutal calculations of real estate and high society. Matrimony in this context has little holiness and little appeal, but it is the only way out of petty poverty. Letty doesn't rise above all this drab world as often as one might hope, making this a rambling, patchy novel. What distinguishes her is her fierce sexual passion and need. Its burning sets certain pages on fire: "I banged the door after me. The streets at first seemed cooler than the house, but this passion, new to me, this fix was tearing at my vitals. I felt as if any moment I would throw myself down in the dust and let the stones tear out my flesh; let pedestrians tread over me, for my passion could only be cooled if my flesh were in a thousand pieces."

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