Interview with Katherine Kirkpatrick by Susan Hill Long

Susan: What made you realize you wanted to be a writer? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Katherine: In the sixth grade, I wrote a story about vampire bats attacking a scientist. That year I won my first English prize, the first of many, and writing became “my thing.” I followed a family pattern. My mother did quite a lot of writing, and my brother Sidney (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_D._Kirkpatrick), sister, cousin, and grandfather chose careers in writing and/or publishing.

My advice to aspiring writers is to take all assignments, paid and unpaid. Contribute to your school’s alumni magazine and local newspaper. Think about what organizations you belong to. Blog. Write a heartfelt reminiscence when your favorite teacher retires. Volunteer your talents, make people laugh, feel appreciated, hone your skills. I’m so proud of the biography of my father I self-published, The Dale Kirkpatrick Story (http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/allegra1943).

Susan: Why did you choose to write historical fiction for young adults?

Katherine: My mother loved history and partly for that reason my parents chose to settle in a community rich in colonial and maritime lore, the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field), Long Island, New York. My family liked to tour historic houses and visit old cemeteries and our local carriage museum http://longislandmuseum.org/, which has a jauntily painted American gypsy wagon, circa 1870, that always captured my imagination. Once I took a children’s writing class held in the museum’s 18th-century one-room schoolhouse.

When I started to write novels, I found myself drawn to the coming-of-age themes of independence, discovery, maturity, and relationships in young adult fiction.

Susan: Where did you get the idea that sparked Between Two Worlds?

Katherine: In the Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I noticed a photo of four-year-old Marie Peary, the daughter of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, onboard a ship with a gigantic meteorite. After researching Marie’s life, I started a novel. I showed it to editor Mary Cash at Holiday House, along with stunning photographs of Marie in Arctic Greenland. With the photos in mind, Mary encouraged me to write a nonfiction book, The Snow Baby, http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_01.html, published in 2007.

Years later I returned to the novel. It took on new life when I decided to switch perspectives, telling the story from Billy Bah’s, an Inuk girl’s, point of view.

Katherine Kirkpatrick with Jessica Baloun, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA

Susan: I really enjoyed reading The Snow Baby! Can you tell us a little bit about your work writing both fiction and nonfiction, and how one approach may inform the other?

Katherine: I’d published four novels before I wrote The Snow Baby, so I brought to that photo essay/biography the novelist’s ability to think in terms of drama and scenes. After eight years of publishing nonfiction books, I returned to fiction with Between Two Worlds. Because I’d already researched Arctic Greenland, I focused on plot and character development without thinking so much about getting the history right. It’s been my tendency, like globbing on too much icing on a cake, to pile on historical details. This time around I started with the cake itself and with better results; Between Two Worlds has received excellent reviews.

It’s not a good idea, career-wise, to do the kind of zigzagging between genres that I’ve done. To establish a readership, it’s best to do the same kind of book over and over, preferably with the same publisher. But there’s value, too, in publishing individual titles. A friend of mine puts it this way: “Go to the party where you’re invited.”

Susan: Between Two Worlds is based on a true story. What’s real and what’s made up?

Katherine: About 80 percent of the book is based on historical events. Sixteen-year-old Billy Bah joined the Peary family on his ship Windward, which became locked in ice for eight months in 1900-1901. Just about everything but the triangle love story and conversations with the ancestor-ghosts is historically based.

Susan: Tell us about the real Billy Bah.

Katherine: Billy Bah, also known by her Inuk name, Eqariusaq, was born around 1884 in a remote coastal area of Arctic Greenland. When she was about eleven, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. with Peary’s family. She was both orphaned and married around age fourteen. Peary referred to her as his most expert seamstress. She sewed the fur coat that explorer Matthew Henson wore during the famed Peary expedition of 1909 to the North Pole.

Susan: The setting of 1901 Arctic Greenland plays a distinct and significant role in the novel. Also, you use a lot of Inuktun (Polar Eskimo) words in the book. Were these challenges for you, in terms of making Billy Bah’s story come alive for YA readers?

Katherine: The key to historical fiction is to put the past into the present, to bring out universal themes that a modern-day audience can relate to such as the desire to belong or the need for independence. No matter when, people have always shared many of the same core fears and desires. One common teenage dilemma is that at some point we must act under pressure and make difficult choices. The theme of romantic love is also powerful and universal. Billy Bah’s love affair with the sailor Duncan is the aspect of the book that I feel will most appeal to teen girl readers, fully drawing them into 1901 and the foreign world of Arctic Greenland.

In earlier drafts, I used a lot of Inuktun words. My editor Wendy Lamb cut out most of them, smoothing out the prose, while skillfully leaving in hints of the native sounds. Wendy also had me tone down aspects of traditional Inuit life that modern readers might find off-putting. I deleted the gory chapter in which Billy Bah’s people slaughter walruses and downplayed the cultural norms of uncombed hair, unwashed bodies, head lice, and body lice. Over five rewrites, Billy Bah became more assertive, more mature, and less historically Inuit in terms of personal hygiene.

Susan: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had to Google for a work in progress?

Katherine: I researched Inuit women washing their hair with urine. It would have put off readers, so I ended up not including that info. Again, sometimes we need to sacrifice a little accuracy for accessibility.

Susan: We all struggle to maintain “balance” in our writing lives. Could you describe your typical writing day?

Katherine: I block out about fifteen hours of morning time, Monday to Friday, for writing, and this time is for writing only. I’ll work in email or phone calls before or after, and in between my family-related commitments, such as taking my 90-year-old father-in-law to his medical appointments and my two middle-school-age children to their music lessons and other activities. I also try to squeeze in exercise time. I like to cook and we make a sit-down dinner a priority. Though I don’t write in the evenings or on weekends, I’ll sometimes do work-related reading or editing. Evenings I like to relax with my cat and play the harp.

Susan: What are you working on now?

Katherine: My novel in progress is set in England and Egypt in 1922-1923, during the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Two years ago, with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece, I visited the book’s Egyptian settings. We toured archaeological sites by small boat on the Nile and flew over the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. This past April, during a family trip to England, I visited my novel’s main British setting, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, outside of London, for the second time. Highclere is now popular as the set for the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey.” I’ve been enjoying myself researching and writing, and I hope that spirit of fun and adventure will go into the book.

Susan: What was it like to have the great Madeleine L’Engle as a writing teacher?

Katherine: Madeleine was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known. Quite tall, regal, and magnificent in her long purple and blue dresses and exotic jewelry, she projected the same sense of wonder as her classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time. She was more than a little like the three otherworldly presences Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. Her expansive vision included a belief in angels, whom she was sure appeared regularly to all of us. She emanated power, knowing, and love, and had a great talent for bringing out her students’ inherently good qualities.

As a writing teacher she wasn’t what you would expect. Instead of talking about plot, character, or story structure, she preferred more abstract themes about the larger role of writing and art in our lives, such as the concept of story being truth. Invariably she advised, “Write for an hour. Don’t think. Attempts to direct only interfere with creative work.” Her belief about writing was that it’s an entry into the larger Cosmos. Publishing books is a happy by-product, she said. The shared journey is what matters.

In the ten years I knew Madeleine, she taught me about the life of spirit and the value of community. I met most of my closest friends through her. To learn more about Madeleine as a teacher, see the book I edited, A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle ( http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_02.html ).

Thanks for interviewing me, Susan!

 * * * * *

This interview was previously published in abbreviated form on the fabulous historical fiction blog “Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks” http://corsetsandcutlasses.wordpress.com/ on June 30, 2014.

published by Wendy Lamb Books/ Random House, 2014

Boreal Ties: Part II

Katherine Kirkpatrick’s Interview with Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III

In July 1901 two New York businessmen paid the hefty sum of $500 each ($10,000 by today’s standards) to travel to a remote area of the northwest Greenland Arctic on the SS Erik. Their names were Clarence Wyckoff, 25, and Louis Bement, 35. The voyage was designed to bring supplies to explorer Robert E. Peary and to find Peary’s wife and daughter, who had departed on Peary’s ship Windward the previous summer and had not returned. When the relief party reached the Arctic, they discovered the Windward trapped in ice but the ship intact and all on board safe. Unlike Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated vessel Endurance, Peary’s ship became ice-locked close to land. Consequently the passengers and crew easily walked back and forth on the ice to shore, where a community of Inuit helped to provide them with food and warm clothing. The Windward and the Erik sailed back together to America in August 1901.

A century after Wyckoff and Bement’s voyage, their descendants Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III annotated their diaries and published them along with their photos in a beautiful book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition (2002). This invaluable reference helped me research two of my own books, The Snow Baby, nonfiction, and my new novel, Between Two Worlds.

Kim Fairley is Wyckoff’s great-granddaughter. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan where she specialized in mixed media and used Wyckoff’s photographs to create large collages. She lives in Chelsea, Michigan. Silas Hibbard Ayer III, is Bement’s grandson. He lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, and is retired from his position as executive production underwriter for the Hartford Insurance Company, where he spent most of his time in Baltimore.

Cover of Boreal Ties, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III, published by University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

 

Katherine: Tell me about the original diaries and photographs and how they look. Where are they? How did they come into your possession? Please explain to our readers why in some cases you both own the same photographs.

Kim: Wyckoff’s photographs were given to me by his daughter, Betty Wyckoff Balderston, my great aunt, and they are still in my possession. The Wyckoff collection is in a book and is in excellent condition.

One of the things I find most interesting about the two collections is the fact that many of the images were taken seconds apart, and from slightly different angles. Since the photographs were similar but of differing quality, we were able to pick and choose the best for the book.

Silas and I have spoken about the idea of donating the collections to Cornell University, since the two men were from Ithaca and the Arctic collection of their friend Fred Church is already there.

Silas: The original diaries and photographs were handed down to me through Louis Bement’s daughter, Ariel Bement Flanagan. They were in mint condition considering they were 100 years old. The Bement pictures were numbered with an index describing the people and scenes. This index became invaluable in tracking pictures with the diary entries. The pictures were in various sizes due to the different cameras that were shared on the expedition. The pictures also were shared which explains why Kim and I own some the same photographs.

The Bement diaries were also in very good condition. The print is small and took several months to transcribe. The key to the preservation of the diary was that the entries were done in lead pencil and not ink, which has a tendency to fade and blur with age.

Katherine: When and how did the two of you meet? How did you come to publish Boreal Ties? Did working on the book enrich your lives in any way?

Kim: In writing the book I learned a great deal about my family. I feel proud of my connection to Arctic history and it felt good to be able to work on it with the descendant of one of my great grandfather’s friends. Silas and I developed a close friendship and we often talked about how Clarence and Louis would be so pleased that we had met and done something positive with their material.

Silas: Kim and I had corresponded 13 years about our Arctic collections before we met for the first time in the late nineties at the National Archives branch at College Park, Maryland. The purpose of this visit was to check out the Robert E. Peary collection to see if there were items in his collection which reflected on the 1901 Expedition and to peruse the material in our collections with the thought of donating to a museum.

At the National Archives I brought all the Bement pictures (300 plus) and diaries (2) and Kim did the same. We had over 700 pictures between us. After extensive review, I recall Kim looked at me and said, “We have enough to write a book.” Thus, Boreal Ties was born. It took a little over two years to put this together with the University of New Mexico Press.

Kim Fairley and Silas Ayer at a book signing, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Kim Fairley and Silas Ayer at a book signing, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

 

Katherine: Tell us why the diaries and photos are of great historical value.

Kim: I discovered in running around to the various Arctic collections that our collections were unique. Most of our images had never been published, and since they were taken years before any of the explorers became bitter enemies, there was a lightness about many of the photographs. In several you see the men relaxing on deck, laughing, or conversing like tourists on vacation.

Silas: The Expedition of 1901 consisted of many who were later to become celebrated names in polar exploration, such as Dr. Frederick Cook, Commander Robert Peary, his wife Josephine and daughter Marie, and Matthew Henson, to name a few. The diaries and photos were primary source material that captured early historic moments in Arctic exploration.

Katherine: Tell us about the hardships of Wyckoff’s and Bement’s journey.

Kim: The men left in the early summer months and thought they were well stocked and prepared. What they found was that they were somewhat unprepared for the journey and at one point felt desperate when the ship was trapped in ice and forced up and onto its side. Wyckoff speaks in his diary about eating rice for a long time before he realized they had actually been eating maggots.

Katherine: Can you think of one thing about the diaries or photographs that readers would be surprised to learn?

Kim: The humanity. This is an age of great discovery and yet the subjects appear to be friends enjoying their time together. You can relate to the people. They aren’t famous explorers striking heroic poses, but down-to-earth people.

Katherine: Do you have a favorite photograph? Journal entry?

Silas: I love the photo of the iceberg in the front of the book, with the high contrast and beautiful light.

Kim: My favorites are of the Inuit, especially the expressive group photographs that show their native dress with the backdrop of the Greenland landscape.

 

Icebergs by Clarence Wyckoff, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Icebergs by Clarence Wyckoff, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Woman and Five Children at Upernavik by Louis Bement, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Woman and Five Children at Upernavik by Louis Bement, copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

 

Katherine: How are Wyckoff’s and Bement’s photographs similar to or different from Australian photographer’s Frank Hurley’s famed 1914-1916 Antarctic photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition?

Kim: Frank Hurley’s photographs are magnificent but the difference is that they seem somewhat staged and heroic in comparison to the Wyckoff-Bement photos. Wyckoff and Bement encountered indigenous people and took a large number of photographs of them. These images added a humanness that dominated the collection, unlike Hurley’s that concentrated more on the heroic nature of the expedition.

Katherine: Wyckoff and Bement, as was typical of Westerners in 1901, referred to the Inuit they met in derogatory terms as “Huskies.” Bement wrote that he “did not suppose human beings could live and stink so . . .” (p. 75) and “. . . it must be worse than a dog’s life they lead” (p. 113). But at the same time, their close-up portraits and candid photos of the Inuit hunting walrus and tanning skins appear to come from a friendly, inquiring, and respectful point of view. These photos look dignified. They contrast sharply with many explorers’ typically formal posed shots, which could almost be labeled “the powerful Western newcomer/conqueror vs. the wary natives.” Why do you think Wyckoff and Bement’s photographs are different?

Kim: The quote, while accurate, represents the racism and arrogance of the early 20th century, but from my own research, I found that these two men—Wyckoff and Bement–came to appreciate the skills and ability of the indigenous people. They embraced the native lifestyle, and applied the skills that had developed over thousands of years in a harsh environment. Their photographs bespeak warmth, camaraderie, and respect.

Katherine: I’m reading between the lines that Wyckoff and Bement weren’t just taking a “vacation” to enjoy a pleasant time. I think they journeyed to the Arctic, consciously or subconsciously, for something deeper: to learn and to grow. From what you know of Wyckoff and Bement, how did the voyage transform their lives?

Kim: The trip to the Arctic was the biggest event of Wyckoff’s life. When he returned, he started a business, married, and had children. His whole life changed. I would say that Wyckoff and Bement both went on the expedition with the idea that they might discover Peary was dead. There was rumor that he had lost his toes due to frostbite and nobody had received word from him in several months. This was in a way a secret expedition. There must have been a huge sigh of relief when they arrived and discovered that Peary was alive and well.

Katherine: Did you have an interest in the Arctic when you were growing up as a result of your great grandfather’s journey?

Kim: I didn’t know about my great grandfather until I was an adult. What I learned had a big impact on me when I did my graduate work, however.

Silas: My interest in the Arctic began when I was young and inherited a collection of letters written by Ross Marvin, Robert Peary’s personal secretary. Marvin wrote to my grandfather, Louis Bement, saying that he feared for his life but couldn’t talk to him about it. He said he would explain when he returned home. As it turned out, Marvin never made it home because he fell through the ice and drowned. Years later, a couple of Inuit converted to Christianity and one confessed to having killed Marvin. Unfortunately, the news was never made public. This polar mystery has always intrigued me.

Katherine: Tell us about your own journey(s) to the Greenland Arctic. Did you retrace your ancestor’s journey?

Kim: No, neither one of us ever made it to the Arctic region.

Katherine: Peary often gave his backers geographical names. Is there a place named after Wyckoff? Did Peary give him any carvings or other tokens of appreciation?

Kim: Wyckoff returned from the expedition with various objects that remained in the family. One was a large narwhal tusk that leaned against my great-aunt’s wall in her living room. I am not aware of any gifts to Clarence Wyckoff from Robert Peary. There was a Cape Wyckoff named after Wyckoff but I’m not sure that it was Peary who named it.

In fact, Wyckoff had a falling out with Peary when Wyckoff gave his rifle to Dr. [Thomas] Dedrick, who decided to stay in the Arctic after the 1901 expedition. Dedrick had the rifle inlaid in ivory by the Inuit as a gift to Wyckoff. When Dedrick gave the rifle to Peary to return to him, Peary donated it as his own to the American Museum in New York. Eventually Wyckoff got the rifle back, but Wyckoff was never particularly fond of Robert Peary after the 1901 expedition.

Silas: There were discussions especially with Wyckoff of assignment of names with Peary but my records do not show this was ever finalized. Peary did give Bement a full walrus head. Bement loaned his head to Cornell University with the understanding that the real ownership was to remain with me. The head was displayed in Willard Hall and disappeared in later years. I told this story to a Cornell archivist who conducted a search of the university. It was never found.

Katherine: Thank you Kim and Silas for the interview and relating so much interesting information to our readers!

Boreal Ties: Part I

While I was writing Between Two Worlds, I returned again and again to the stunning photographs in a gorgeous book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III. Its panoramic shots of the towering cliffs and massive ice floes of the Greenland Arctic set me in the mood to write. And best of all, the book’s informal shots of both Inuit and Westerners offered me a rare chance to view my main characters: Inuk girl Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah; Robert E. Peary’s wife, Josephine; and his daughter, Marie.

The photos and journals were created by two New York businessmen, Clarence Wyckoff and Louis Bement, who journeyed to the Arctic as what we would call today “adventure tourists.” Explorer Peary’s ship Windward, carrying among other passengers Peary’s wife and daughter, did not return to America as expected in the summer of 1900. So the following summer Peary’s financial backers in New York arranged for a relief party, journeying to the Arctic on the steamer Erik to investigate. Paying a fee of $500 each, Wyckoff, 25, one of Peary’s supporters and a manufacturer of typewriters, and a friend, Bement, 35, a salesman of hats and caps, joined the expedition.

Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Cover of Boreal Ties, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III, published by University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right, with the icebound Erik in Melville Bay, Greenland. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

The businessmen traveled with multiple cameras, the latest and best Eastman Kodak had to offer. Though not professional photographers, Wyckoff’s and Bement’s unique images far exceed Robert E. Peary’s own photographs both in technical and artistic qualities. While the adventure tourists enjoyed nearly three months of intense sunshine, Peary often took his tripod and old glass plate cameras out in typically poor Arctic weather.

Fortunately for Wyckoff and Bement, they weren’t in Peary’s employ, or else they wouldn’t have been permitted to have cameras. Always thinking of public relations and secretive about what he was up to, Peary kept tight control of all images taken on his expeditions. (He made a rare exception when he allowed Matthew Henson to publish a few photographs in his 1912 autobiography).

The businessmen endured maggots in their soup, hives, and head lice. Three weeks into the journey all the meat on ship went rotten and had to be thrown overboard. More than once, the Erik’s incompetent crew almost steered the ship into mountain-sized icebergs.

After the voyage, the friends pasted copies of each other’s prints into their scrapbooks; in some cases they annotated who took the photograph, and in other cases not. The Wyckoff photo labeled “Billy Bah, a girl of 16” offers a vivid portrayal of a young Inuk woman looking straight at the viewer. She seems pleased; it appears she feels appreciated by the photographer. There is reciprocity between them. It is a close-up portrait taken in a spirit of friendliness.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

This photo, more than any other, worked on my psyche and helped many images and facts coalesce as I created the main character in Between Two Worlds. And later, when the story was complete, illustrator Sam Weber used this same picture as reference to recreate Billy Bah’s face on my book jacket. He modeled the Windward, which appears in the background, after another image in the collection.

Historians are lucky to have Wyckoff and Bement’s rare and extraordinary record of their voyage, and as a novelist I absolutely cherish my copy of Boreal Ties.The businessmen were not only in the right place in the right time, they were paying attention. To take such photographs, they clearly put themselves on scene, front and central, entering into a landscape and into the lives of people they depicted.

This fundamentally is what making art is all about.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

 

The cover for Between Two Worlds, copyright © 2014 by Sam Weber.

Christmas Card from the North Pole

Floodlights cast yellow circles over the snow, over blocklike buildings, over a dark ocean full of icebergs. Small figures dart from the direction of the ocean toward the buildings. Under this photo, e-mailed to me from Qaanaaq, northwest Greenland, the hunting culture’s most northerly town in the world, the caption reads: “I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Our weather is fine. Right temperature for the area with snow. All my best, Navarana.”

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

There may not be a Santa Claus, but there are indeed people living 550 miles (885 km) from that invisible point in the Arctic Ocean known as the North Pole.

Navarana is one of many interesting friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years through my writing. A native speaker of Inuktun, she helped me with words and phrases for my forthcoming young adult novel, Between Two Worlds (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, April 2014), a historical fiction adventure story about an Inuk girl on Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary’s ice-locked ship in 1900. Based on a number of true characters and incidents, the book features sixteen-year-old Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah, who lived in America with the Peary family for one year, returned to the Arctic, and sewed furs for members of Peary’s expeditions.

Getting to know people like Navarana, whose backgrounds are very different from my own, is my favorite perk of being an author. Here I am in Seattle, the “emerald” city of towering evergreens, and there she is in the treeless polar Arctic, surrounded, at least at this point in the year, by snow and ice.

For the next seven weeks, Navarana will live in total darkness, though the springtime will bring brilliant sunshine and, with the melting snows, patches of green with an abundance of plants and flowers. All summer, beautifully and intricately formed icebergs pass by in the fiord in front of the town. Temperatures in the winter months can drop as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). The town has cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, a water truck, an oil truck, and an ambulance, though people also travel by foot or dogsled; the only outside road leads to a small airport. At most times of year, residents use motorboats for hunting and other transport.

Navarana has Internet access at home and through her work at the local hospital, where she serves as interpreter and translator. In this community, Danish, Kalaallisut (or West Greenlandic) and the predominant local Thule dialect, Inuktun, mix together with low, wonderful gutteral sounds and long complex words that form whole sentences. Here’s a sample of Inuktun: takuleqangakkit nuannaartunga (“I am happy to see you”). And yes, natives of the hunting culture use cell phones, though, speaking from personal experience, the around-the-world service is a little erratic and very expensive.

Navarana Sørensen

Navarana Sørensen

Over the past four years or so, while answering questions for my book, Navarana has occasionally offered intriguing glimpses into her life. Once, while explaining a several-month hiatus from her computer, she told me she’d been filming a documentary movie called Vanishing Point (National Film Board of Canada, 2012). During two successive summers, the directors had taken her on narwhal hunts both in her local waters and off Baffin Island. Scenes in the film include Navarana and her group traveling on sea ice by dogsled, hunting, preparing narwhal meat, and feasting. Another scene shows the group capturing little auks and stuffing them in sealskin bags for fermenting into a delicacy to be eaten later. Making the movie was great fun, she said. While in Canada, she’d also enjoyed a visit with her two daughters and grandchild.

During the final editing of my manuscript last winter and spring, I tried reaching Navarana a few times, to no avail. My book had changed titles from Box of Secrets to Between Two Worlds. Because the title represents an important theme in the book, I wanted to include the Inuktun phrase for “between two places” somewhere in the text, but the translation cannot be found online or in any printed dictionary. (It’s pivvit mardhuk akornganni, as I later learned.) What had happened to my living-and-breathing, and occasionally whale-hunting, resource?

Worried when I didn’t hear back from Navarana, I contacted the director of an Arctic museum in Maine who’d first referred me to her; the museum director, too, had unsuccessfully tried to reach Navarana. She confirmed what I’d vaguely suspected: Navarana was ill.

A few more months passed with silence from that wintery top of the world. In early summer, my publisher returned first proofs to me with further language-related questions. By this time, nearly a year had elapsed since my last communication with Navarana. I feared the worst, but I thought I’d try to reach her again anyway.

To my surprise and delight, Navarana, ever her cheerful, friendly self, shot back an immediate reply with many apologies. She’d been in Denmark for medical treatments, she said, but she’d recovered and was overjoyed to be back among her own people again.

What happy news! All that day, I walked about with a light heart. My friend and collaborator whom I’d thought dead was alive. We exchanged a few more e-mails. I sent her my book cover, which shows an Inuk girl running against an icy landscape. She wrote back, “Waow!” which, I think, means she likes it.

Between 2 Worlds cover

It’s happened to me so many times now but it still seems miraculous that I can reach out across continents and oceans to touch another life, and that a faraway person can touch my life in return.

I’ll close with the memory of another holiday card: the now ubiquitous UNICEF image of children of different ethnicities holding hands and encircling the globe. However diluted the message has become through commercial use, it’s still true, powerful and relevant:

The world is one big family.