Book review: At the End of the World, by Lawrence Millman
In the winter of 1941, when most of the world was concerned with the Second World War raging in Europe, a different drama was unfolding on the remote Belcher Islands of Canada’s Hudson Bay. In a religious frenzy, three Inuit became convinced that two of them were the reincarnations of God and Jesus respectively and murdered a number of other Inuit, including children, for reasons such as not agreeing that they were deities, accusations of the others being Satan, or for no reason at all. The Canadian government caught wind leading to a trial and sentencing the three responsible.
The book is billed as true crime, but I hesitate to call it that, because it’s so much more – the crime itself is only a catalytic event in a larger landscape. In a jumpy but pleasantly readable, almost vignette-like style, the narrative is interwoven between several topics: the brutal 1941 murders and their accompanying era, lead-up, and trial of the guilty; a shift to the present as the author visits and interacts with the Inuit currently living on the Belcher Islands, some of whom are descendants of those involved in the earlier incidents; a wealth of his ecological observations on the flora, fauna, and nature-related mythology of the islands and their culture; all alongside author Lawrence Millman’s complaints about the dangers of modern technology and how technological developments coupled with obsessive use of devices, social media, apps, and gaming is bringing about severe disconnection and potential dangers.
Which I don’t entirely disagree with, to an extent, but I found this part of the book frustrating. I felt it took something from the historical story, which is the strongest narrative and nevertheless makes the whole book worth reading. In fact, after finishing I skimmed back through a few of the passages telling this story, and I was enchanted with his writing, with the blend of folkloric tone and atmospheric description of this isolated, world-left-behind region. It’s chilling in every sense, in a good way.
Although this focus on technology gone amok is distracting, it did present some opportunities for interesting Arctic anecdotes. He relates one of a girl obliviously texting, narrowly missing being attacked by a polar bear when she looks up from her phone screen and notices at the last second, screaming and scaring it away. “The incident carried with it this message: you can’t write about the Belcher murders without also writing about the screen-driven lives around you. Each represents a particular world coming to an end…” This was how the story spoke to the author, he describes trying to write about Belcher Island in a different way and being unable until he made the connection with technology invading culture.
Millman is a respected writer, researcher and ecologist, and has written prolifically about the Arctic region. He’s also clearly intelligent, well-read and well-rounded and must be personable enough to convince Native Inuit to spill much of their personal histories, beliefs, and folklore to him. Those portions of the book are fascinating. But the carping about technology, jokes about googling things and the obsession with ‘screens’ got old and despite their inclusion, I couldn’t make the connection with the Arctic events that he could.
His reason for drawing parallels between these two stories, the infamous Belcher Islands murders and modern immersion in technology, is to show that ours is just a different kind of cultural invasion. Those who were possessed by a religious frenzy and driven to cold-bloodedly murder others in the name of a God they’d only recently been exposed to by Christian missionaries visiting the islands are likened to those who blindly worship screens of various kinds nowadays.
“‘To kill a culture’, wrote Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression, ‘it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher or at least regarded as higher…'” Millman gives examples to support this including people believing that GPS is better than having a sense of direction, or spending too much time indoors online or staring at a screen than being present with one’s surroundings. I agree, as I think many do, but if his main thesis is that over-reliance on the internet and computers will influence us the same way that exposure to foreign religion made some of the Inuit cold-bloodedly murder each other, I’m not quite on board.
But I thought that he wrote especially beautifully about the juxtaposition of Inuit and mainland Canadian culture, including the RCMP legal system. Even hilariously, writing that the natives wouldn’t have understood the trial judge’s wig, instead probably would have applied their beliefs and assumed it was necessary to keep a polar bear’s jaws from crunching if one tried to bite into his skull.
Or the concept that the inside of a person might not be the same as the person’s outside – it might not even be the same animal, human on the outside and Arctic fox on the inside, for example. I think there’s not a person alive who wouldn’t agree. Passages and observations like this make for an enlightening, beautifully constructed read; I only wish the naturalist’s beautiful observations, including those on the effect of technology on the Inuit, weren’t interspersed with so much venom against technology.
At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic
by Lawrence Millman
published January 17th, 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.