Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic by Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic, by Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, is a Middle Grade book that despite some problems has a winning charm to it.
Set in, well, the old Arctic, at a time when the Inuit were just entering a land, the story is both a coming-of-age tale and a clash of cultures narrative. The coming-of-age belongs to a young Inuit hunter named Kannujaq. The culture clash involves the new-to-this-land Inuit, represented solely by Kannujaq; those who already lived in the land, the Tuniit — represented here by a single village; and the Norse; in this case a single ship of raiders.
Those raiders have just attacked the Tuniit village just as Kannujaq had the misfortune of mistaking the village for one of his people’s roving encampments. Before he can leave, the young shaman of the village begs him for help and soon Kannujaq is embroiled not just in efforts to stave off the raiders but also in just-as-dangerous village politics. As he spends more time in the village, Kannujaq is forced to re-examined many of his pre-existing beliefs, both long-held ones about the Tuniit (whom his people consider a “shy and bizarre… not-quite-human folk”) and newly-created ones about these strange giant men who come with violence and strange weapons.
Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic is definitely a younger novel, more MG than YA and really not much of an adult crossover. Many of Kannujaq’s maturation moments are bluntly stated rather than shown, sometimes perhaps even more than necessary for even a MG book, though I’m certainly the wrong demographic to be certain about that. A bigger issue I had was with the direct address by a contemporary narrator. I’ve always believed that a good direct address is a very tricky thing to pull off — too many times they seem clumsy or condescending or both, and I have to say that was the case here. Too many “You see” and “Now if you could…” statements for me. The structure didn’t seem necessary, nor did it seem to enhance the reading experience at all. Actually, just the opposite. One could remove the narrator completely and have a nicely flowing, quick-paced tale. I found myself wishing the author’s had taken to heart Kannujaq’s words: “One must never interrupt a story. To do so was to insult a storyteller’s isuma.”
The story does move quickly. So much so in fact that it felt more suited to a long short story, but I suppose that’s more an aspect of its MG nature than a flaw in the tale itself. Kannujaq himself is a likable and introspective character that the reader grows attached to even in this short span of time. It’s hard to imagine a young reader not immediately warming to him, or nodding his/her head as Kannujaq puts aside yet another false belief. The setting is another plus, mostly for its fresh nature, and the alien landscape is strengthened by the many Inuit words that pepper the text, such as the above “isuma.” A likable character, a unique and inviting setting, a chance to learn another culture’s history/stories, and some good life lessons make Skraelings a good choice for a Middle Grader (but if you read it aloud to them, I’d skip the narrator’s part).