Twelve Shivering Years In America

Émilie Héon

Some books are unforgettable because of the effect they have on us. It is the case for Kenn Harper's book Give me my Father's Body. In his successfully achieved work, Harper focuses on Minik Wallace's tragic story, which life story has become ''a legend to his fellow Eskimos'' (p.1) Wallace is one of the Eskimos from Northern Greenland that has been brought to New York by the conqueror Robert Peary. Although they were not brought against their will, they were not quite aware of the goal of their expedition to New York. Throughout the story, Harper tells the readers about certain memories Minik recalls such as the ''beginning of his southern odyssey'': ''I can remember very well when the big ship came far up there where I lived with my father and my people. I was a little boy then, and I had never seen a ship before. [...] The big ship brought to our little village more white men than we had ever seen'' (p.19).

As soon as they arrived, it became clear that they would only serve for exhibit purposes as well as the meteorite Peary brought back. More than 30 thousands visitors went to see them in two days (p. 29). With him were brought his father and Nuktaq, ''who were the strongest and the wisest heads of [their] tribe'' (p.19). The first two chapters of the book focuses on the setting of their departure which helps readers contextualize and understand this tragic story. Although their people did not want them to leave, Peary convinced them by promising they would come back within a year with ammunitions. They promised them many things like warm homes, guns, and knives (p.20). Words being really powerful for native communities, they believed them and left. Unfortunately, Peary's sayings did not meet reality and the Eskimos were exhibited.

Minik father's was one of the first to die of pneumonia, which caused him inconsolable grief since ''[his mother was dead and [he] had no brothers or sisters. And so [he] loved [his] dear father very much and [his father] loved [him]'' (p.19). Six-year-old Minik became orphan, but was adopted by a middle class family in which he could at least enjoy life as he could until they had major financial problems. Minik was left alone, and Peary would not help financing his return to his home land. Although these events seem really tragic to the readers, the story climaxes when Minik learns that his father's bones are exhibited in a museum. The books mainly focuses on Minik's quest to get back his father's bones, but also highlights his loss of identity; identity loss being a theme widely used in native literature. In this work, this theme is especially highlighted when Harper writes about return to his home land. Minik went back to Greenland and had to learn again the Eskimo language and customs, but felt so apart of the culture that he went back to America, where he died.

Nonetheless, in his book Harper states and recalls some historical facts. While reading, people learn about Minik's life as well as some other facts. For example, Minik name was originally spelled ''Mene'' (p.2). Moreover at the very end of the book, readers can see a picture of Minik's grave which is in the Indian Stream Cemetery in Pittsburgh and learn that the date of birth carved in it is incorrectly stated (p.230).

Nowadays, people have difficulty conceiving that people could have been caged and exhibited just like in zoos. Peary took pride in doing so. Harper was interested in this question and highlights several of Pear's other conquests. By reading the book, it is possible to understand how it was important and meaningful for Peary since the other specimens he usually brought back were skeletons. Minik and his people were one of his greatest achievements since they were alive: ''but more interesting because blood still coursed their veins'' (p. 30).

Give me my Father's Body is a very well written and thoroughly searched book: the author's background is contributing a lot to its quality. Moreover, Harper is addressing it with respect and sympathy. This heartbroken and eye-opening book should be read by everyone in order to understand native sorrows, pain, loss of identity, and to have a better understanding towards their communities.


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