In almost whiplash fashion, Canada’s Inuit people were yanked from the traditional lifestyle they had lived for centuries into what should have been for them an easier life in the small Artic communities they had only visited in the past. In a scant three generations (Patterson’s book covers the 1950s to the 1990s), these people went from living “on the land” to watching their young people leave the Artic entirely in order to seek a lifestyle scarcely heard of by their grandparents. That such a rapid change was almost certain to be a destructive one does not lessen the impact of Patterson’s story of the Inuit as they move from a difficult, but successful, lifestyle to one of poverty and confusion, and on to a generation of children with material and cultural desires that can no longer be satisfied in the Artic.
Patterson tells the Inuit story largely through the eyes of Victoria Robinson, an Inuit woman who, when she developed tuberculosis at ten years of age, was taken from her parents and sent to Montreal for treatment. By the time that she was returned to her parents as a teenager, they were no longer living “on the land” and had moved to the small Artic town of Rankin Inlet. Victoria, now an educated young woman with some knowledge of the world, felt like an outsider when she was reunited with her family. She knew that she was different, and so did they. Her marriage to a Kablunauk, a white man, seemed inevitable to her parents, and the experiences of her bi-racial children reflect all of the pressures and desires confronted by young people who must abandon their own culture in order to have better lives than the one experienced by their grandparents and parents.
Consumption is a complex, multi-generational family saga filled with numerous characters, each of which contributes to fleshing out the world that Kevin Patterson has created. Patterson does not limit himself to a single point of view, including among his characters several Kablunauk who have come to the Rankin Inlet settlement for reasons of their own, some looking for adventure, some hoping to profit financially from what they find there, and others determined to accomplish some good by working to make the lives of the locals better.
Interspersed among the book’s chapters are short medical science essays attributed to Keith Balthazar, the town doctor who splits his time between Rankin Inlet and his apartment in New York. Readers might be tempted to skim, or even to skip, these essays but, by doing so, would miss many details and subtleties associated with the overall story. Like each of Patterson’s characters, the essays add bits and pieces of detail that help make Consumption into the moving novel that it is. It is near impossible for most readers to imagine the loneliness and isolation of the 1960s Artic settlements. Patterson not only makes it possible for us to imagine it, he achieves it in the most effective manner there is, by adding layer upon layer of detail and emotion until the reader comes to feel completely comfortable with the environment described and the people who live in it.
This is a remarkable first novel.
Rated at: 5.0