Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, by McKay Jenkins

The book's full title, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness and Murder in the Arctic Barren Lands, captured my attention as I was perusing the shelves after a reading at my local bookstore. Although the title seemed a bit lurid, I was pleased to find the book itself a well-written and -researched narrative of two Catholic priests undertaking a mission to convert a group of Eskimos, as they were then known. In 1913, when this journey took place, this particular group had met few white men, trappers mostly, and scraped a living in their harsh environment as previous generations had: gathering in large communities, sharing everything, migrating with the seasons.

One of the priests, Father Rouviére, had come north the previous year with a trapper who had agreed to guide him and three men who were investigating the rumor of copper deposits. His bishop had sent him on a race to convert the “heathen” to Catholicism before the Anglican missionaries got there. Father Rouviére's contacts with the native people were generally friendly, though limited by his inability to learn their language. He and Father LeRoux who joined him in 1913 were spectacularly unprepared for their journey to the north. They had no wilderness skills, having grown up in France's well-settled and gentle land. Unable to hunt and lacking appropriate clothing, they were forced to rely on the very people they hoped to convert for sustenance and support. Even though this additional strain on their meager resources represented a grave danger to their community, the people were hospitable and generous to the priests, at least at first.

Drawing on primary and secondary sources, Jenkins lays out and substantiates the shifting relationships between the priests and the people, between their different cultures and assumptions, between their languages. I especially enjoyed the details of the traditional way of life and how it had adapted to an environment where it seems inconceivable that anyone could survive. The people the priests set out to convert had no religion per se, though Jenkins describes their superstitions and use of shamans. They lived in the far north, migrating between Great Bear Lake and the mouth of the Coppermine where it empties into the western corner of Coronation Gulf, in the Barren Lands of the Northwest Territories.

The murder referred to in the title results in a trial, which gripped my attention just as much as did the account of the priests' encounter with a foreign culture. The questions raised by the trial rebound on all of us. Those of us who have sat on juries and been baffled sometimes by the logic behind some of the deliberations in the jury room will be interested in how the concept of a “jury of our peers” plays out here.

I have long been fascinated with hard places, desert sand and polar ice. I've read many of the books Jenkins refers to and am as fascinated as he with the interaction of place and people, “the relationships that human beings develop with the land on which they choose to live.” The blurbs inside say the book reads like a mystery novel. While there are mysteries, I would describe the book differently. Jenkins's measured tone and clear prose makes him a reliable narrator whom I felt I could trust to give me the story undistorted by prejudices and polemic. There may not be any car chases here, but the book is as compelling as any novel.

Note: Although we have read some of the same books and, according to the acknowledgements, apparently frequent the same coffeeshop, I am not acquainted with the author.

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