In the early autumn of 1920, Maggie Nujarluktuk became a woman with another name. It happened something like this. Maggie was sitting on a pile of caribou skins. She had a borrowed baby in her amiut
, the fur hood of her parka. A man was filming the scene. His name was Robert Flaherty. Maggie was about to pull the baby out of the amiut
and set him to play beside a group of puppies as Flaherty had instructed, when looking up from his camera, he said, “Smile,” grinning to show Maggie what he was getting at and told her, through an interpreter, that he had decided to change her name. She laughed a little, perhaps conscious of his eyes, blue as icebergs, then lifted the baby into her arms, placed him beside her and pulled the puppies closer to keep him warm.
“Well, now, Maggie,” Robert said. He winked at her, wound the camera and lingered on her face. She watched his breath pluming in the chill Arctic air.
“How’s about Nyla?” He allowed the name to roll around his mouth. “Yes, from now on you are Nyla.”
If Maggie minded this, she didn’t say. She already knew she had no choice in the matter anyway.
Maggie Nujarluktuk was very young back then (how young she didn’t know exactly), and very lovely, with a broad, heart-shaped face, unblemished by sunburn or frostbite or by the whiskery tattoos still common among Ungava Inuit women. Her thick hair lay in lush coils around her shoulders and her skin and eyes were as yet unclouded by years of lamp smoke or by endless sewing in poor light. Her lips were bowed, plump but fragile-seeming, and it was impossible to tell whether her smile was an invitation or a warning. Beneath the lips lay even teeth that were white and strong, not yet worn to brown stumps from chewing boots to make them soft. And Robert Flaherty had just renamed her Nyla, which means the Smiling One.
Robert Flaherty’s movie had begun in something of a rush. Only three weeks earlier, on 15 August, the schooner, Annie
, had dropped anchor at the remote Arctic fur post of Inukjuak, on the Ungava Peninsula on the east coast of Hudson Bay, and a tall, white man with a thin nose and craggy features had come ashore with his half-breed interpreter, introduced himself to the local Inuit as Robert Flaherty, and announced his intention to stay in the area long enough to make a motion picture there. The film, he said, was to be about daily life in the Barrenlands.
The stranger moved into the fur post manager’s old cabin, a peeling white clapboard building on the south bank of the Innuksuak River and hired a few hands to help him shift his things from the shoreline where the Annie
’s crew had left them. Among the expected baggage of coal-oil lamps, tents and skins were the unfamiliar accoutrements of film-making, lights, tripods, cameras and film cans, plus a few personal belongings: a violin and a wind-up gramophone with a set of wax discs and three framed pictures, one a photograph of Arnold Bennett, another of Flaherty’s wife, Frances, the third a little reproduction of Frans Hals’ Young Man with a Mandolin
. The number of possessions suggested that Robert Flaherty was settling down for a long stay. Within a day or two of his arrival, he had hung his pictures above the desk in his cabin, lined up his books along a home-made shelf, rigged up a darkroom, setting several old coal-oil barrels outside the door to serve as water tanks for washing film, and found three young men he could pay to haul his water and supply him with fresh meat and fish. By the time a week was up, the cabin looked as though it had always been his home and Flaherty was busy assembling his lights and cameras and running tests. In the evenings, he could be heard humming along with his gramophone (he was particularly fond of Harry Lauder singing “Stop Your Ticklin’ Jock”) or playing Irish jigs on his fiddle.
The local Inuit were not much used to white visitors, and the new arrival turned the little settlement of Inukjuak upside down. No one knew quite how to place Robert Flaherty. His particular brand of whirlwind energy was new to them. Nor had they ever come across a qalunaat
, a white man, with such sturdy warmth and rushing good humour. The fur traders they had encountered were glum and troubled and fond friends of the whisky bottle. News of the stranger spread, and the Inukjuamiut, as the people living around Inukjuak are called, began coming in from outlying camps to inspect this new addition to their world. Flaherty greeted them all with smiles and gifts of ship’s biscuits and this, too, felt out of the ordinary. A few wondered, darkly, what the strange qalunaat
wanted from them and drifted back out to their camps, but more stayed on, intrigued by the stranger and eager to audition for a part in the movie he said he was about to make.
Flaherty was soon holding try-outs on the river bank in front of the fur post manager’s cabin. To play his leading man he picked a strong, good-natured fellow in his thirties called Alakariallak, who was renowned throughout Cape Dufferin for his hunting prowess. Flaherty renamed him Nanook, meaning “bear.” To play one of Nanook’s wives Flaherty chose a local woman called Cunayou, to play the other, Maggie Nujarluktuk.
This was not Robert Flaherty’s first attempt at making an Arctic film, but it was
almost certainly his last chance to get it right. A few years later, when he had become famous, a journalist asked him why he had persisted back then, after so many setbacks and difficulties, and he replied, as he often did, with an aphorism, saying that “every man is strong enough for the work on which his life depends.” In 1920 Robert Flaherty believed his life depended on this movie. And, as it turned out, he was right.
Flaherty had first pitched up in the Canadian Arctic ten years previously, looking for iron ore, in the employ of Sir William Mackenzie, a Canadian mine owner and railroad baron whom Flaherty had met through his father. Mackenzie had invested considerable capital in a transcontinental railway across Canada and he was planning to lay track as far north as Churchill, Manitoba, a bleak Barrenlands settlement on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Mackenzie’s goal was to link the railway with a new shipping route across the bay and thereby create the shortest navigation between the wheat plains of Manitoba and the flour mills of Europe, which were then connected overland and by sea through the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic. There were additional benefits, which Mackenzie, being a good businessman, had not ignored. It was well known that Hudson Bay’s seabed was rich in iron ore—for centuries whalers had reported compass interference whenever they sailed there—and some enormous iron ore lodes had been discovered on the east coast of the Bay in the Ungava Peninsula just north of Labrador. Mackenzie reckoned there might be money to be made extracting the ore and shipping it to Europe.
His geologic interest focused on the Nastapoka Islands, a cluster of granite nubs lying just off the east coast of Hudson Bay at 57° North. The Nastapokas had figured in some prospectors’ logs as being worthy of exploration. Inuit had been living in the area for thousands of years but the place was only scantily mapped and virtually unknown to white men. Mackenzie needed someone young and ambitious with courage and flair, even a little recklessness, to blaze a route through. In 1910 he chose Robert Flaherty. The railroad baron had employed Flaherty’s father, Robert Flaherty Sr., and knew the family from the old days, when the American frontier was still open and the Flaherty family had helped to settle it. At twenty-six, Robert Jr. already had a reputation for adventurous prospecting in the northern forests of Canada and although he had had no direct experience of the Barrenlands, Mackenzie felt inclined to take the risk on him.
The Flahertys had come over from Ireland sometime during or just after the potato famine and, travelling south from Quebec, they had settled in the tough mining country of Michigan. There Robert Jr.’s father, Robert Henry Flaherty, had met and married Susan Klöckner, the daughter of Catholics from Koblenz. Robert Henry had done well for himself, buying up a modest little mine at the foot of Iron Mountain, Michigan, where Robert Joseph was born, on 16 February 1884, the first of seven children.
The family lived a comfortable upper-middle-class life. Robert Jr. grew up with a love for the outdoors and a disdain for civilisation which was remarkable even among boys living in the wilds of Michigan. This untroubled existence came to a sudden end, though, in 1893, when the price of iron ore slumped and Robert Sr. was forced to lock out the miners at his Iron Mountain operation and later, when things did not improve, to close the mine down altogether. Of necessity, he took up a position as a mining engineer in the tiny backwater of Lake of the Woods in upper Ontario, leaving his wife to bring up their children alone.
Susan Klöckner was a loving, devout and uneducated woman and she did her best to raise Robert Joseph in the fear of God, but none of her sermonising appeared to have the slightest effect on her eldest son. If there was a god in Robert Flaherty’s life he was to be found in the woods with the bears.
So the boy grew up wild, and when Robert Henry returned to Michigan his son begged to go with him on his next posting to a remote outpost, the Golden Star Mine in Rainy Lake, Ontario. It was a Huckleberry Finn kind of a life and Robert Jr. took to it like a trout to tickling. For two years father and son camped out in the woods, hunting rabbits, tracking bear and learning woodcraft from the local Ojibwa Indians. During the long winter nights, the boy lost himself in the adventure stories of James Fenimore Cooper and R. M. Ballantyne and in the long summer evenings Robert Sr. taught his son to play the Irish fiddle. Robert Jr. learned some sharper lessons from the Ojibwa too. Years before, miners and fur trappers had brought booze and misery into the lives of the Indians living in northern Ontario. The sight of strong, capable men staggering around begging moonshine off the miners crept across the young Robert’s tender heart like a shadow. If this was what men called civilisation, then he wanted no part of it.
When Robert Sr.’s two years in Rainy Lake were up, the Flaherty family moved on again, to the Burleigh Mine back near Lake of the Woods. Deciding their son needed some formal education, Susan and Robert Henry dispatched Robert Jr. to Upper Canada College in Toronto. The college was run with the rigid discipline of an English public school. It was intended to whip the boy into shape, but only made a square hole for a round peg. Robert Jr. soon contrived to get himself expelled, returning to Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior, where the Flaherty family were then living and enrolling in the local school. Even there Robert Jr. chafed against any kind of formal instruction, preferring instead to spend most of his time with the English mining engineer and adventurer, H. E. Knobel, who encouraged the boy’s fiddle playing as well as his fantasies.
It was through Knobel that Flaherty first heard tell of Hudson Bay, a remote seaway bitten out of the eastern Canadian mainland. Knobel had been canoeing there and had stories to tell of the rapids he had paddled, the portages he had passed and the Indians and Inuit he had met on the way. The young Robert was so taken with Knobel’s stories of adventure in remote places that, after a final and brief flirtation with book learning at Michigan College of Mines, he gave up formal education altogether and went north, into the woods to prospect for ore, hoping, one day, to travel as far as Hudson Bay. When, in 1910, Sir William Mackenzie asked him to lead an expedition to the Nastapokas, Robert Jr. felt his destiny calling. He did not hesitate.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath. Copyright © 2007 by Melanie McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.