CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006
The story opens with 19-year-old Minik, who's destitute, ill, and searching for an opportunity to jump off a balcony in Montreal. Through flashbacks, Minik narrates the story of his journey from Smith Sound, Greenland, to New York City in 1893. Minik was three-years-old when American Explorer Robert Peary took him, his father Qisuk, and four others to the Museum of Natural History as a living exhibit and for scientific tests. Within 96 days of arrival, his companions died of consumption, and Minik was sent to live with the museum superintendent, William Wallace, and his family. Although still in the throes of culture shock and trauma, Minik settled in and managed to pass happy years there, until he discovered that the museum staff faked the burial of his father.
Instead of following rites that would release Qisuk's spirit from angrily walking the earth, the museum staff dissected Qisuk's body and those of the other Eskimos, then had them macerated in Williams' plant so the bones could be displayed. Minik runs away, absolutely horrified, and attempts suicide.
Lerangis' use of first person makes the story immediate, personal, and accessible. His timing is masterful, particularly the foreshadowing done on micro and macro levels. For example, Lerangis first describes Peary with eyes "the color of ice," indicating with a single phrase that Peary is frigid, unforgiving, and devoid of warmth, as he appears throughout the book. The story's structure is also carefully planned. Lerangis deftly prepares the reader by providing information early in the book that will assist the reader in seeing through Minik's eyes. An example is the description of the ceremony and traditions carried out for Minik's mother's death in Greenland. This description helps the reader understand the impact of the riteless deaths and burial in New York.
The sparse, lean text suggests major themes (cultural belonging, racism, objectification, culture clash, power imbalance, and historical methods in anthropology) but leaves the reader to connect the dots. The book drips with the whites' condescension towards the Eskimos, yet Minik tells his story without over sentimentalizing. For example, Minik and the other Eskimos are displayed upon arrival in New York, made to wear their heavy bearskin coats despite the heat, required to shake hands and say "TANK YOU" when the fancily-dressed New Yorkers give them candy and peanuts. Lerangis sets the scene so that readers understand the racism and objectification inherent in the situation without any additional commentary on his part. Lerangis also introduces the concept of culture clash through his treatment of status. He presents the clash from Minik's perspective, leaving readers to compare with the societal rules they know. Peary orders the Eskimos around, and the Eskimos do his bidding "because pleasing our guests is just our way."
The Eskimos don't consider themselves as lower status to Peary; instead, they operate in a completely different system of rules. The Eskimos are not invested in Peary's social system, but they cannot escape its prejudice.
Smiler's Bones is captivating the first time and becomes more engrossing with every re-reading. Teens will take the most from the book, and children in grades 5 and up will enjoy and appreciate it since Minik's story reverberates on many levels. An excellent book for classroom use, one that is not at all didactic.
Jennifer Caldwell is a youth librarian at Richmond Public Library in BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.