Review + Blog Tour: Between Two Worlds by Katherine Kirkpatrick

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On the treeless shores of Itta, Greenland, as far north as humans can settle, sixteen-year-old Inuit Billy Bah spots a ship far out among the icebergs on the bay–a sight both welcome and feared. Explorers have already left their indelible mark on her land and its people, and a ship full of white men can mean trouble.

The ship carries provisions for Robert E. Peary, who is making an expedition to the North Pole. As a child, Billy Bah spent a year in America with Peary’s family. When her parents went to America years later, they died in a tragic scandal. Now, Peary’s wife, daughter, and crew are in Itta to bring him supplies. Winter comes on fast, and when the ship gets caught in the ice, Billy Bah sets out to find Peary. The journey will imperil her life, and that of the man she loves.

I received Between Two Worlds from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Between Two Worlds is the fictionalized story of Billy Bah, a real Inuit woman who lived in northern Greenland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After reading the historical notes at the end of the book (I read them first!), I spent a little time reading about explorer Robert Peary, the Inuit, and the two settings of the book online. Katherine Kirkpatrick has written Snow Baby, a nonfiction account of the childhood of Peary’s daughter that I would like to read.

Life was difficult in Itta, Greenland, with bitterly cold winters and, at times, a lack of food. The Inuit were familiar with Peary from his previous visits, so when his crew (and his wife and daughter) stopped in Itta, many of the Inuit hunters wanted a ride on their ship to Ellesmere Island (which they called Musk Ox Land), in Canada, where the hunting was better. Billy Bah and her husband were among those chosen to go.

I was a little taken aback when Billy Bah alluded to her husband trading her to some sailors for guns and ammunition, but a few pages later, I realized it was common in their culture.

Now and then, a husband might lend his wife to another hunter for a few days, to help with his chores or to relieve his boredom during the long winter. Such trades were never made with outsiders. But Ally went to Peary so often, it almost seemed she had two husbands…

Two husbands…and a son with Peary’s blue eyes.

Later, Billy Bah was traded to Duncan, a sailor on the ship taking the Inuit to Musk Ox Land. They spent a lot of nights together, and Billy Bah even encouraged her husband to keep trading her to Duncan. Yes, even the Inuit have love triangles. This one, though, didn’t seem so terribly serious the way so many triangles do when the participants don’t have much else to worry about. Though she was torn between her loyalty to her husband and her feelings for Duncan, Billy Bah was concerned with survival more than anything else. There was no room for relationship drama in Billy Bah’s life.

Billy Bah truly was caught “between two worlds.” Many of her own people didn’t truly accept her because her husband traded her to the white men and, and the white people didn’t accept her because she was Inuit. It was hard to watch her struggle with wanting Mitti (Mrs.) Peary’s approval and friendship, knowing that Mitti Peary felt she was better than Billy Bah. Only Marie, the Pearys’ young daughter, loved Billy Bah for who she was. It was painful for Billy Bah to come to terms with her feelings for Mitti Peary, Robert Peary, and the other white people as she slowly realized that they were hiding things from her, most importantly the fate of her deceased parents.

I had a little trouble with the unfamiliar names of the characters, all As and Qs and Ks, but that’s not the fault of the author. It wouldn’t be right to name the Inuit Julia or Cheryl or John. There’s a cast of characters in the front of the book and I kept referring to that. (That’s one advantage of a physical copy over an ebook: it’s easier to flip back and forth to both that cast of characters and the Inuit glossary in the back!) There’s also a blank page for a map and I wish it had been included in the ARC. I was able to find the area of Itta (Etah, now abandoned) and Ellesmere Island via Google Maps. It’s hard to believe people (130 of them in 2011) live so far north, at the top of the world, and hard to imagine their lives even now, 100+ years after the events of Between Two Worlds. The average annual temperature there is 2° F; where I live it’s 57° F.

Partly based on the real Billy Bah’s life, partly generalized from information about various Inuit groups across Greenland and Canada, and partly fiction, Between Two Worlds is a fascinating look into a culture I know very little about.

There’s a giveaway for Between Two Worlds on Goodreads that ends on April 27. With 30 copies available and (currently) only about 160 people entered, your odds are good! Please visit the rest of the stops on the Between Two Worlds blog tour. There are some particularly interesting guest posts by Katherine Kirkpatrick.

4 stars
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Jenna