‘At the End of the World’ tells a shocking tale of murder in the Arctic

By David A. James, Alaska Dispatch News - March 28, 2017

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

By Lawrence Millman; Thomas Dunne Books; 2016; 208 pages; $24.99

The Belcher Islands lie in eastern Hudson Bay and are home to an Inuit group who call themselves the Qiqiqtarmiut. Surrounded by shallow waters with many rock outcroppings, they were avoided by mariners, who saw their dangerous shores as a graveyard for ships. Thus despite 300 years of British exploration in the bay, the Belchers remained untouched by Europeans until 1914 when the American Robert Flaherty, who later gained fame filming “Nanook of the North,” came looking for ore.

He found little of value, but others followed, including missionaries who briefly alighted, offered lessons on Christianity, and departed.

Fatal seed

For Lawrence Millman, author of numerous books including the northern travel classic “Last Places,” it was the missionaries who planted the fatal seed. To the Qiqiqtarmiut, Christianity was an entirely foreign concept. An apocalyptic faith was something they had no cultural ability to understand. What they did understand was that the winter of 1940-41 was a time of hunger. Seals, walrus and even arctic hare disappeared.

So when an unusually intense meteor shower lit up the sky one night, a shaman named Ouyerack proclaimed himself Jesus Christ and declared the end of the world at hand. Then he announced that one Peter Sala, the best hunter in their midst, was God. Sala thought it over and decided it was true. A new cult was born. Within weeks, three residents who denied the divinity of Ouyerack and Sala were murdered. Six more Qiqiqtarmiut died in what could only be described as a negligent mass homicide tied to the new religion. It wasn’t the apocalypse, but the Qiqiqtarmiut could have been forgiven for thinking so.

In “At the End of the World,” Millman uses this event as a parable. The collision of European and Christian values with a culture wholly unprepared for them is but one of the stories he is telling. There is also his own time spent on the islands researching the story, which he did in 2001 when the Belchers were still unconnected to the internet and other modern communications systems. Then there’s Millman’s rage at modern technology itself, which he sees as demolishing our relationship with what remains of nature. But it’s an addiction Millman is as hooked on as anyone; for all his condemnations of electronic devices, he repeatedly references his endlessly fruitless Google searches for background on the killings.

The title, then, is not simply stating the obvious, that the murders occurred at a place so remote it might well have been the end of the world. They also signaled the end of the world as the Qiqiqtarmiut had known it. Their cosmology and lifestyles were being replaced. Similarly, for Millman, our world is ending as we detach ourselves from nature and turn our full attention to screens. The thrust of this book is captured in a quote from the renowned Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz that Millman cites early on: “To kill a culture it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher or at least regarded … as higher.”

There’s a lot going on in this book, and since it spins out in so many directions at once, Millman has chosen to write it in a series of short paragraphs, each one double spaced from the next, each expanding on the previous one and setting up the next in quite logical fashion, despite the fact that a paragraph about the killings might be followed by one discussing the 9/11 attacks, or an examination of a local fungi might be followed by a paragraph concerning screen obsession.

Multi-focused and unfocused

What also sets each of these paragraphs apart is that each can stand alone, removed from the book, and still convey meaning. It makes for a book that flows quickly and seems at times simultaneously multi-focused and unfocused.

Some sample paragraphs:

In 1910 the Belchers were unmapped, leading Millman to ask:  “Question: Of what value is a map that doesn’t have a blank spot on it?”

Regarding an invasive species, Millman writes: “Originally from the Caucasus Mountains, giant hogweed is an alien plant that has outcompeted local plants in many parts of Canada … just as the Christian God, an alien deity in the Canadian North, has outcompeted local deities.”

While strolling the beach, “I walked past drift logs lying askew, isolated, or piled high — the de-articulated bones of the sea.”

This book is filled with loss. The loss of innocence that the arrival of Christianity brought to the Belchers. The loss of nature. The loss of face-to-face interaction in favor of social media. Even the loss of the culture of the Belchers themselves, which Millman witnessed as the internet arrived. In 2001 when he was doing his research, he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks two days after they happened, when news reached the islands. Now the Belchers are connected to the broader world and no longer so remote.

It’s a flawed book. Millman seems ready to give up on us all as lost to our screens, yet as I type these words mushers and cyclists and skiers and walkers are all barreling down the Iditarod Trail. Plenty of people are still drawn to the great beyond. Our culture is changing as it always has, but we still have plenty of doers.

Worse, Millman appears to wish the Inuit could stay locked in the way they once were. He asks a lot of important questions, but he never asks the people if they oppose the changes.

He also ignores the obvious: today the Qiqiqtarmiut don’t go hungry. Hungry people sometimes do horrible things. The newly introduced apocalyptic faith perhaps provided an easy scapegoat, but the temporary collapse of the subsistence economy that Millman celebrates created the existential fear that led to the murders.

In this well-written and deeply philosophical book Millman seems to have missed this most elemental point. Hungry people do horrible things. The gods are indifferent.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.