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Hunt, William R.

Vancouver, University of British Columbia. c1986. 317pp. cloth, $29.95. ISBN 0-7748-0247-2. CIP

Grades 10 and up
Reviewed by Adele Case

Volume 14 Number 5
1986 September

Stef. William Hunt's biography of a well-known, but controversial explorer, will interest Canadians for a number of reasons. Stefansson was born in Canada, and did his most notable exploration in the lands, islands, and waters on the northern fringe of Canada; yet, he chose to live, write, and declaim on a variety of topics in Amercian publications, and from a base in New York city. He tried, unsuccessfully, to interest the Canadian government in exploration more than once, but after the Karluk tragedy he seemed too much of a Jonah to be given official support. The mode of travel of his era (by dog-drawn sled) has since been superseded by snowmobile, helicopter, and icebreaker, but in reading of his life, we appreciate his abiding love of ihe polar regions, and his deep respect and affection for ihe Inuit, among whom he lived for many months. This work gives a scholarly, balanced view of one of the notable twentieth-century travellers north of the Arctic circle.

Most importantly, this biography shows how Vilhjalmur Stefansson's work documented the way of life of Inuit peoples in the regions near the Beaufort Sea. For Siefansson, these icy domains were friendly, as he adapted his diet, clothing, and movements to the vagaries of the weather, and the always unpredictable shifting ice. Other explorers, including Amundsen, found these same fastnesses distinctly unfriendly.

The book does not compare, for drama or sheer readability, with the recently-published Scott and Amundsen, Roland Huntford's excellent contrast of the preeminent British and Norwegian explorers in their epic race to be first to the South Pole. Nor is it as stirring as Shackleton's South, a story of great endurance and leadership. It does, however, show that Stefansson's contribution was essentially far more diverse than the thrust and push of explorers whose goal was to plant their national flag at a particular destination. In such races, the competitors hauled or pushed all the accoutrements of their civilized lifestyle with them, never taking the time to try to live off the land.

During his lifetime, Siefansson was given little recognition by the Canadian government. Most of his adult life he spent in lecturing, writing books or magazine articles, and travelling either from New York, or (later) New Hampshire and Vermont. Canadian suspicion of Stefansson probably grew from his early exploration, when the Karluk went into a north-easterly drift among Arctic floes and pressure ridges. (Stefansson had already left, to do some hunting nearer shore.) The ship was finally lost, and the captain unwisely consented to the division of the party.

The section of the book dealing wilh the exploration is far more interesting to a lay reader than the many chapters on Stefansson's early education, his numerous lecture tours, projects, bibliophllic activity, and academic pursuits. As a writer, lecturer, and polar consultant, he continued active until his death in 1961. For decades in the public eye, he seemed fated during most of his lifetime to carry some residue of blame for the lives lost after the Karluk foundered.

This book will enable readers to assess Siefansson the man, and to weigh the positive aspects of his life: his Arctic research; the notes he took on a range of topics; his staunch belief in the possibility of life for man in the polar regions (on which more research has been carried out in Russia than on this continent); and, finally, to learn about his legacy, his collection of books and works on the Arctic, which is located at Dartmouth College in the United States. Like many another Canadian, "Stef" is likely to gain fame as time passes.

Adele Case. Britannia S.S., Vancouver, B.C.
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