________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006


Smiler's Bones.

Peter Lerangis.
New York, NY: Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2005.
147 pp., cloth, $22.99.
ISBN 0-439-34485-9.

Subject Headings:
Wallace, Minik-Fiction.
Peary, Robert E. (Robert Edwin), 1856-1920-Fiction.
Arctic Regions-Fiction.
Polar Eskimos-Fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Jennifer Caldwell.

**** /4


We are taken to a massive stone igloo standing alone in a place called the West Side. The nearest buildings seem to be shunning it, clustered far away behind an elevated track. I nickname the igloo Qivitoq Building. I will not be able to pronounce its real name - the New York Museum of Natural History - for quite some time.

We are taken to the basement and given a room there. On the positive side, I am at last in a place where I can take off my clothes and run around. On the negative side, I am told by a woman named Margaret that I must sit in a bathtub with water as warm as spit…

She tries to edge closer, holding a brush and a towel. I circle the tub, keeping it between us. When her back is to the wall, mine is to the door - and I run… At the end of the hall I see an open room. But inside it is a man draping a skin over a frame, trying to re-create an animal.

I watch him for a moment, baffled. "Why did you skin it in the first place?"… I sprint around a corner and see a grating above me. This means I am near our living quarters. Museum goers come to the grating to peer at us. Lying on their stomachs, they wave to us and drop scraps of food.

Peter Lerangis weaves an intricate, haunting, and unique tale based on historical events. Smiler's Bones unfolds with finely wrought, relentless pacing; it is a rich quilt of fact and fiction that will captivate readers, even hard-to-reach boys.

     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.

Highly Recommended.

Jennifer Caldwell is a youth librarian at Richmond Public Library in BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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