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An extraordinary gentleman

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An extraordinary gentleman, Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Not “The Last Gentleman Adventurer” as his publishers have advertised in the title of this posthumous 2005 memoir. Not an adventurer at all, we discover, but a better man than that, honest, earnest and brave. A true-heart. Certainly a gentleman, but not the last of those, however rare they are today. Extraordinary in every way that I know of him. But, alas, I only know of him through the pages of this, his only book. And though a fine and natural writer, he is not given to bragging.

To be fair to the publisher’s choice of titles, the Hudson’s Bay Company, for whom Maurice worked in the 1930’s was established by Charles the Second of England in 1670 as the ‘Gentleman Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay.’ In these times of Costco and Apple Inc., we don’t have such incorporations today. But the publisher’s misleading banner is subtitled, “coming of age in the arctic.” This is more to the point. This has more of the straightforward modesty of the author.

It is also from the jacket copy that I first learn that Maurice was an English bookseller. You see, I have a natural and positive prejudice toward booksellers in general which is wholly rational (as prejudice can sometimes be). For the most part they are splendid and wonderful people. Some are better than that. A few should be selling footwear. But this fact is enough, given my natural inclinations, to make me investigate further.

I will likely never go to the arctic myself. I don’t mind cold weather for a season. I read my Jack London early on.  But the arctic (and the Antarctic too) is for far better men than me. Winter there is three seasons surrounding something I would describe as a poor Spring. But I’m happy to visit vicariously. And then only during actual summer months so that my imagination can be kept in check.

“A noisy booming followed from somewhere high up in the gulley to the north…Kilabuk shot up out of his sleeping bag to brace the ridge pole. Alan grabbed the support nearest the entrance, already bending to the pressure. I made for the far end but the top of the pole broke off before I could reach it, striking me a formidable blow on the head as the tent started to collapse….then, blasted by a sudden acceleration of shrieking wind, the end support gave way. Alan went over head first, disappearing from sight as our shelter tore away from its mooring to wrap itself around him and Kilabuk, flinging them both to the ground. Somehow, the tent had gone over my head leaving me standing freezing cold in my underpants with a useless piece of pole in my hand…”

I prefer armchairs and good lighting near a reliable source of heat.

Perhaps I was predisposed to the subject as well by another wonderful book, Fifty Years Below Zero by Charles D. Brower. Brower was an American boy who set off to strike it rich and managed instead to live a fabulous life in the arctic near Point Barrow. But that’s another story and another time. I was speaking of Edward Beauclerk Maurice of Baffin Island. Issumatak, ‘one who thinks.’ An Englishman from Sussex, of the better sort. And a bookseller.

It is 1930. Maurice is 16. The Great Depression looms. Fatherless and dependent on the meager kindness of a grandmother for a home along with his mother, brother’s and sisters, our hero answers the call of the Hudson’s Bay Company for trainees to man the trading posts of arctic Canada. The adventure begins.

Dropping a mere boy, with only an unfinished education and little more than what will fill a duffle bag, at a primitive station on Baffin Island for a year with no escape, and no recourse, no doctor, no radio, no bed for that matter, amidst a strange people who do not speak English and under the direction of a drunk who does not even care to speak the language of the woman with whom he has fathered a child, appears to be sufficient cause for adventure. Young Maurice makes the most of it.

At a time of blatant prejudices of far greater depth and import than my simple affection for booksellers, Maurice, with a boy’s innocence, accepts the habits of the Inuit people he has found himself amongst, and not only undertakes to learn their language and to teach them his, but to learn their ways, and understand their culture at a passing moment when the machine technology of the Empire was about to finally overwhelm a handcrafted society already ravaged by disease and abuse.

Perhaps only a boy could witness this moment without the bigotry endemic to both cultures. Inuit means “The People,” and the prejudice of the Inuit toward “the others” is not to be overcome easily. Maurice stands his ground against ravenous wolves, raging polar bears, and the mad rush of caribou, bearing up to the ravages of tuberculosis and the loss of friends, food poisoning and the advances of amorous widows. Through all is a sense of decency and honor that is peculiar to the best of heroes.

Lacking the manic striving for a Pole, North or South, or the quest for an imagined Passage to the Northwest that spoils so much human endeavor for its blindness to the wonders of the journey itself, this is a thoroughly human story which has already found a wide audience, and now, thankfully, has come my way. It is one of the great pleasures and mysteries of being a used bookseller to find such a gem in a box of lesser volumes, and then to wonder why the previous owner would ever let this go with the rest — not unlike a chance encounter with an extraordinary person amidst the passing crowd. When they are found, you want to introduce them to your friends.

But you will only ever know of Issumatak, the brave Keeta, the stalwart Beevee, the good and true Innukpowak, the cross-eyed huntress Ooleepika, the nasty Savik and the tragic and beautiful Nyla, if you enter here.

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