By Lawrence Millman
St. Martin's Press, 2017
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
The Arctic has been the theme of many a book – tales of lost explorers, stories of oddball nothern "characters," and ecological parables of that bellwether northern zone. And yet some, though true in every particular to that portion of the earth which is their theme, have had a deep and profound resonance throughout a far wider swathe of our human experience. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and John McPhee's Coming Into the Country come to mind. Lawrence Millman's At the End of the World is one of these.
Millman's central story – that of a fit of religiously-inflected madness in which a number of Inuit on the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay set upon their neighbors, whom they regarded as incarnations of "Satan" – is the main, but in a sense only partial theme of this book. Our solid-seeming world may end in any of a great number of ways, not just a bang or a whimper – and Millman's genius here is a matter of sensing out the proportions. In the Belcher Islands, the whole universe might be condensed into a single village, one by the name of Sanikiluaq – from which vantage-point, during the author's visit there, the rest of the world was but a phantom on a glowing box. It's often observed that we southerners have little notion of the day-to-day nature of life in the Arctic, but the reverse may also apply – and so it was, that when by chance the destruction of the World Trade towers took place in the midst of Millman's visit, its image on the television became even more surreal. The Inuit residents were at first inclined to change the channel to something more amusing, like a Road Runner cartoon, but switched it back when one man observed "There's an American here, and his country is falling down."
But that's just one "end" of one world. The other had come sixty years earlier, and the Belcher Islands had been its epicenter. It came in the form of a shooting star, which persuaded many Inuit there that perhaps the "end times" they'd read about in their syllabic Bibles were at hand. Its chief apocalyptic horseman was one Peter Sala, a local hunter who decided one day that he was God, and that anyone who didn't like that idea was probably Satan. Another man, Charlie Ouyerack, soon decided that he was Jesus, and God and Jesus joined forces to destroy the evil among them and prepare for the Second Coming. No rough beast ever slouched quite as low as these men, who began beating people to death and shooting them. Yet despite their depravity, their acts paled before those of Sala's sister Mina, whose mind gave way under the enormous pressure to conform to these new deities. She declared that Jesus was coming – right away – and summoned everyone out onto the ice. At her behest, many of them shed their fur clothing; the idea was that one should go to meet one's maker naked as the day one was born.
Of course nearly all of them died. One woman, the only one who had stayed behind, came out to those on the ice, and managed to get several of them, including Mina and two children, to return to the village, if not to their senses, but six others remained and soon froze to death. The aftermath of these deaths, which were belatedly investigated by the RCMP, is its own story, fraught with all the issues of religion, local culture, and the line between murderous intent and mental illness, and Millman tells it well. But despite the book's subtitle, these stories, though at the heart of the book, are only one of its interwoven themes. From the glowing box in the house in 2001 in Sanikiluaq, we move back and forth – back to Robert Flaherty's filming of Nanook of the North in 1921, and forward to our own moment, and our own ubiquitous portable glowing screens. We have, in Millman's view, become our own islands, disconnected from any sense of ourselves as much or more than this isolated Inuit village is from the rest of the world. We have lost, in his view, something more profound than perspective -- we have lost our essential humanity, becoming the servants of the machines we built to serve us.
It's a potent meditation, the more so for its dual anchors in the two worlds traversed by the book, and its resonance reaches far and wide. It remains possible, the reader discovers, for a single person in a small place to discover something about ourselves that the rest of us never stopped to notice. It's happened before – with Thoreau at Walden, Muir in his woods, or Rachel Carson in her office at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries – but it doesn't happen often. Millman's epigrammatic style – a departure from the straightforward (but no less lyrical) one of his many previous books – is its own sly benefactor; under its spell, we become open to insights that neither simple storytelling nor argumentative diatribes could have brought us.
In the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau exhorts his readers to turn away from earthly exploration, to "be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes." In this book, Lawrence Millman shows us that it's possible to travel to both places -- the ends of the earth and our interior poles -- at the same time.