The last gentleman adventurer: coming of age in the Arctic Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005 Edward Beauclerk Maurice Explorers Canada, Northern Biography, Maurice, Edward Beauclerk Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiv, 392 p.; 21 cm. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
In 1930, a desperate year, Edward Beauclerk Maurice, an English schoolboy, took a desperate step. Inspired by a documentary on the Canadian Arctic, he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Under the agreement, he would be posted to one of the company’s six trading posts on Baffin Island. At 16, he became, in the words of the company’s original charter, a “gentleman adventurer.”
“The Last Gentleman Adventurer” is the account of Mr. Maurice’s stay among the Inuit of the Far North, and his evolution from the callow, accident-prone youth the local Inuit called “the Boy” into the skilled hunter, amateur doctor and trader they renamed Issumatak, “One Who Thinks.”
Mr. Maurice waited more than half a century to tell his tale. After serving in the New Zealand Navy during World War II, he settled into the quiet life of a bookseller in a small English village and died in 2003, as his only book was being readied for publication in Britain. Time and distance lend the narrative a peculiar charm. It is an old man’s backward look at the young man he once was, and at a world that has all but vanished, and is all the more precious for that.
The Boy started off badly. Almost immediately after landing on Baffin Island, he managed to strand himself on a cliff face, and thereafter he showed an uncanny knack for falling into ice holes. Fortunately, his expectations were low and powers of endurance impressive. The local diet of seal stew, lumps of seal or deer fat, and meatballs made of mashed beans, corned beef and deer meat did not seem all that bad compared with English boarding-school fare. Deer fat, he found, “had a most palatable, nutty flavor.”
Mr. Maurice flinched only once, after being served chunks of seal meat from a pot in the tent of a hunter and realizing, soon after, that the cooking vessel also served as a chamber pot for the baby of the family. “I lay awake considering the implications of this discovery for a long time,” he writes, “but finally fell asleep, taking cold comfort from the thought that it is only possible to die once.”
The sense of isolation was profound. There were 15 Europeans, and only one doctor, on a territory many times the size of England. Once a year, a ship from the Canadian mainland dropped off supplies, and unreliable radio signals transmitted fitful news of the outside world. Searching for reading material at his first post, Mr. Maurice faced a stark set of choices. The offerings ranged from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” to a thriller titled “Blood Ran Down the Bishop’s Face.”
Rather than brooding, Mr. Maurice threw himself into his new life. Sensitive and curious, he observed the local people, worked hard to understand their customs and gained fluency in the Inuit language. He fell in love with his natural surroundings and became an enthusiastic hunter. In one rousing episode, he even strikes out on the open sea in pursuit of a whale.
The overall approach is antiheroic. Hunting is treated less as an adventure than as an occupation (although there’s no mistaking the exhilaration of skimming over the snow in a dogsled and bagging three or four caribou). Rarely does Mr. Maurice even mention the cold. Most of his attention is directed toward the Inuit and their culture, to the life inside their tents and igloos, and to the network of social relations that sustains them.
Command of the language and a gossipy fascination with local disputes take him a long way. Mr. Maurice quickly discovers that the patronizing Europeans are, unknown to them, patronized in turn, satirized in song and story. “She opens her mouth like/ A fish out of water/ To show off her tooth/ Like a walrus tusk…,” runs one ditty describing a female visitor from the Canadian south. On long winter nights, he listens to native storytellers, and when invited to speak, holds his audience spellbound with “Snow White” and “Aladdin and the Lamp.” The author paints these scenes with a quiet, understated charm.
There is high drama, too. In his final posting, on Frobisher Bay, Mr. Maurice confronts a mysterious epidemic that kills many of the people’s best hunters. With only a small medicine kit, he assumes the role of doctor and finds himself locked in a political battle with the wily local shaman, who sees One Who Thinks and his strange aspirins as a threat.
Mr. Maurice must also deal with an emotional crisis as Innuk, the widow of a hunter, encourages him to make their friendship something deeper and more permanent. Temperatures run high when he forms a sled team with Innuk and her good friend, an Inuit version of Annie Oakley. Together, they speed across the snow on expedition after expedition, one of the most improbable hunting partnerships ever seen in the Arctic.
Mr. Maurice draws the curtain discreetly on his relationship with Innuk. But his feelings for her, for the Inuit and for the harsh, unforgiving land they call home radiate a steady warmth more than 50 years later. His memories remained clear and powerful. It would be interesting to know whether the reverse is true, and whether anyone on Baffin Island tells a tale or two about a stranger known as One Who Thinks.