CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number . . . .September 25, 2015
When Inukpak (ee-newk-pak) meets a hunter, he believes the man is a child because of his comparatively diminutive stature. Intending to care for this “little son”, Inukpak puts the hunter on his shoulder and continues travelling. Inukpak catches a bowhead whale for himself and his little son to eat, and he throws a polar bear that had alarmed his son into the sea. That night, the hunter reflects that the giant seems kind, and since, at any rate, he does not know how to get home, he decides to stay with Inukpak as his son. Together, they roam the Arctic and have adventures. Following the story are several pages about the kinds of giants and their respective habits according to traditional Inuit stories.
The illustrations are the strength of this story. They provide perspective as Inukpak is shown striding past herds of caribou, which barely reach the top of his boots, and holding the hunter (a fully grown man) in the palm of his hand. Accordingly, the illustrations also provide humour. When Inukpak meets the hunter, the giant crouches so as not to alarm the “little child”; even so, Inukpak kneeling is at least six times the man’s height. In another instance, when the hunter is soaked by a massive wave of ocean water, his soaked clothes and seated body language render him for an instant into the endearingly chubby toddler Inukpak believes him to be. The illustrations also pick up on the textual play with perspectives. When the polar bear appears, it is foregrounded on the right-hand page while the hunter and the giant are depicted in the middle ground on the left-hand page. The polar bear thus appears at least triple the hunter’s height and truly menacing; turn the page over and a more even distant perspective has Inukpak, stooped, fill the page while both hunter and polar bear appear diminished. The following pages, however, zoom closer to Inukpak who holds the bear in one hand and the hunter in the other. Inukpak is clearly amused by his son’s fear of the “small” creature; the hunter is disbelieving as he watches the giant toss the dangerous bear aside as offhandedly as he might discard an unused snowball.
The illustrations were engaging; however, I have a few reservations. It surprised me that Inukpak wears a necklace of bones since no similar necklace appears in displays (in museums visited and in a quick online search) of traditional Inuit attire. Inukpak’s clothes are looser and involve less fur than traditional clothes, although the hunter’s hemline has the traditional (and practical) edging. It also seemed odd that a press which was formed with the goal of preserving and promoting traditional Inuit stories and northern artists would choose an artist who is neither Inuit nor Canadian.
The illustrations raise questions which are beyond the scope of the tale: Inukpak’s clothing appears to be sewn from whole, not patched, hide; are there giant caribou roaming the Arctic? What has happened to the giant polar bears Inukpak remembers hunting? What animal provided the bones for the necklace Inukpak wears? These questions are not addressed in the endpages, which focus on human-like giants and their natures. The end pages whet this reader’s appetite for more stories of, and facts about, Inuit giantlore. Perhaps the questions might be answered and expanded upon in a future story.
The phrases are, at times, highly oral. It is easy to imagine a storyteller narrating this story or a teacher reading it aloud. Other points in the text are less reader-friendly: emotional tension stagnates; patterns repeat without building; colloquial language that fits neither oral patterns nor written conventions appears, for instance, several sentences begin with “so,” and “just” is used as it is in speech.
There is understated humour in the text: when Inukpak catches a bowhead whale for dinner, calling it a sculpin, the hunter does not know how to correct a giant; when Inukpak tells the hunter that the polar bear is much too small to be a polar bear and is, in fact, a baby fox or a lemming, again the hunter does not know what to say. This humour could be easily brought out by an adult reader through vocal emphasis and body language.
The pronunciation of Inukpak, given as a footnote on the first page of the story, assumes an audience unfamiliar with Inuit words. Sculpin, however, is never defined, which assumes an audience familiar with this small species of fish.
Despite a few flaws, On the Shoulders of a Giant is an enjoyable introduction to Inuit mythology that will leave readers hungry for more stories from the north.
Janet Eastwood studied Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia.
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