Sunday, March 6, 2016

Marooned in the Arctic: Ada Blackjack's Extraordinary Life

In 1921 a top secret expedition of four Canadian men and one Inuit woman set out to occupy Wrangle Island in Siberia to claim it for Britain. Several Inuit families who were to go were no shows, but Ada Blackjack desperately needed the $50 a month salary and decided to go alone. Her son had tuberculosis and as a single mother Ada needed to find money for his medical treatment.

Ada was born in 1898 near Solomon, Alaska. Her father died when she was eight and her mother sent her to a Methodist mission in Nome. She was taught English, basic reading and writing skills, and the Christian religion. Ada never learned traditional Inuit skills, except for having a skill of turning animal skins into clothing. That was her purpose on the expedition.

At sixteen Ada married  Jack Blackjack and they moved to the Seward Peninsula. Ada suffered six years of abuse and starvation from Jack. Two of their children died, Bennett developed tuberculosis, and Jack deserted the family. Ada divorced Jack and took Bennett to Nome where she cleaned houses and sewed to support them. Bennett needed medical care which Ada could not afford and she took him to the Methodist orphanage for care.

Ada heard that the explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was organizing an expedition. He had hired Errol Lorne Knight, Frederick W. Maurer, Milton Galle, and Allan R. Crawford to carry out the secret mission. Stefansson told the men that the Arctic land could support a comfortable life, that game was abundant, and settlement by Europeans the goal.

Marooned in the Arctic by Peggy Caravantes tells the story of  the doomed expedition. All four men perished, and Ada had to survive alone until she was rescued two years after her arrival. Caravantes points that the men were totally unprepared and overly optimistic. They failed to provide adequate food for the long winters. They had forgone buying the boat needed to reach the ice floes where their prey could be found. As the men fell ill with scurvy and starvation, Ada learned to set trap lines and shot a rifle, chop the wood, and nurse the men--all while suffering loneliness, cultural isolation, fear of polar bears, homesickness for her son, and scurvy.

After Ada's rescue she faced pubic notoriety and the pressure to provide answers to the men's fate. She was lionized and dehumanized, had another son, fell ill with tuberculosis, and died in poverty in 1983.

Ada's story has all the elements of a great story. Adventure, pathos, racism, strength, maternal love, cultural imperialism, and Arctic exploration. Caravantes has done her research. But this book meant for ages 12+ lacks emotional connection, vitality, and excitement. It reads like an encyclopedia article with too much telling. The characters don't live. For instance, we are told that the ill and dying Knight wrote a melancholy letter but we don't know what he said.

The book has sparked an interest and I want to know more about Ada.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The True Story of Ada Backjack, the "Female Robinson Crusoe"
by Peggy Caravantes
Women of Action
Chicago Review Press
$19.95 hard cover
Publication March 2016
ISBN: 9781613730980

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