February 24, 2016

Way Back Then

by Neil Christopher
Illustrated by Germaine Arnaktauyok
Inhabit Media
40 pp.
Ages 3-5
November 2015

Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing company that “aims to promote and preserve the stories, knowledge and spirit of northern Canada”, produces wonderful picture books many of which CanLit for LittleCanadians has had the pleasure of reviewing, including Games of Survival, Grandmother Ptarmigan, The Blind Boy and the Loon, The Legend of Lightning and Thunder, Lesson for the Wolf, Painted Skies, Sweetest Kulu, Kamik An Inuit Puppy Story, and Tuniit: Mysterious Folk of the Arctic.  Way Back Then continues that tradition by focusing on the Inuit oral tradition of a father, Kudlu, who begins to tell his sweet children, his “kuluit”, stories his grandparents told him about what things were like long ago.

There is the origin story of night and day, based on a fox who wanted darkness so that it could steal from others, and the one of how sea mammals arose from a woman tricked into marryng a bird spirit.  The myths about the origins of the caribou that fill the North and how the land populated itself with babies that were adoped by people of the North are also shared with Kudlu’s children.  And then there are the tales of magical igluit (pl. of iglu) that could travel through the air and of the nanurluk, the giant polar bear, which could be so large as to be mistaken for icebergs (see illustration below).

The stories, however, are short and not always complete, as Kudlu whispers to his sleeping children that “…when I was a child, I always fell asleep before my grandparents got to the end of each story, and I never heard the endings.” (pg. 33) Regardless, these stories are born of a time of magic and a place wholly arctic and lovingly illustrated by Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok.  Germaine Arnaktauyok's illustrations, drawn meticulously with pen and coloured pencils, have a somewhat pointilistic flavour to them because of the visible dotting.  Yet, the artwork is easily identifiable (unlike much pointilism) and has an essence of ethereal realism to it, easily complementing the magic and natural world of Neil Christopher's stories and text.

Way Back Then may be short, incomplete myths told within the context of a bedtime story, but it is a larger-than-life (much like the lemming and giant polar bear within) story that celebrates oral storytelling, both in Inuktitut and English here, that will provide parents and educators with the seeds for expanding that storytelling practice to a new generation.

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