Friday, May 23, 2008

Ada Blackjack

Since I was tagged to write about an impossible dream I have been wondering what to write. At the same time I have been reading the incredible drama of Ada Blackjack. Ada Blackjack is about a 23 year old Inuit woman who went on an Arctic Expedition organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1921. She went along to sew for the four young men who were to spend the year on Wrangel Island for some poorly conceived hairbrained reason.

The four young men are sent off with only enough food for six months as they are to live off the land. It seems that they did not even have adequate winter clothing since they panic when Ada does not get down to her sewing tasks right away. It soon becomes evident that of the four well-educated, fit and intelligent young men, none of them are a good shot with the rifles and ammunition dwindles as scarce game escapes their efforts to bring in an adequate food supply. Ada simply refuses to touch the guns at all and seems to have the idea that since she is sewing for the crew, she should be fed by them.

At the end of the first year one young man is seriously ill with scurvy and the food supplies are low. However, Steffanson does not have the resources to get a ship to the island to pick them up in spite of the pleading of the parents of the young men.

Finally realizing that their food and ammunition is running low, three of the group take the dog sleds and head north hoping to cross the ice to Nome, Alaska. They are never heard of again.

Ada and Knight are left together at the original camp. By this time Knight is seriously ill and Ada must now learn to shoulder the rifle and hunt for their survival. Day after day, she takes on the new task. She learns to handle the recoil. She learns to aim and bring down birds. She eventually is able to kill and retrieve a seal.

However, Knight, lying in bed, immobilized by scurvy is no longer able to swallow enough fresh meat to recover. He slowly wastes away and dies. Ada is left alone on Wrangel Island with a gun, the expedition cat, Knight's Bible and a typewriter. One of the passages that touches her deeply is the story of the Samaritan woman. Ada was a young Inuit woman, already married and divorced, the outsider of the group. The only survivor, she lived on after the others were gone with the Bible as her companion. At the end of the second year Ada is rescued. What we read in this book comes from her records and the diary of each of the young men.

Why do I think of this book as the impossible dream? I have a collection of books on Arctic exploration inherited from my mother and grandmother. I simply sat down and read them all one summer. Somehow, I think of the frontiers of the wilderness as their impossible dream. Why would two Victorian women make their main interest Arctic exploration? These books are, for the most part, devoid of a woman's point of view. This is the first time that I have read about Arctic exploration from the diary of a woman. Subtly the entire topic of Arctic exploration has shifted for me.

The story is told sympathetically and characters of the young men are drawn from interviews with relatives and letters from the parents, as well as diaries. How poorly prepared they all were! Ada had no special skill at survival as an Inuit. She accepted the challenge of survival when all other hope was gone. This story is fantastically well told and draws on amazingly detailed diaries. I highly recommend it but I do rejoice that Arctic exploration is not my impossible dream. Nonetheless we all have some notion of a personal frontier that we are reaching towards, whatever that may be.

1 comment:

David Ker said...

Ada's story and yours are highly evocative. And perhaps yours is more so for the personal frontier that is yours alone.