Essay : Kabloona
For years, my husband, Michael, had a pile of books next to his bed, waiting, he said, for when he got sick. Although he was sometimes down for a day or two, he was never out long enough to make a dent in the pile.
The books that stayed longest on the table were eight volumes from the American Trail series, put out in the 1960s by McGraw-Hill. Each volume deals with an American thoroughfare such as the Natchez Trace, the Boston Post Road, the Erie Canal, the Santa Fe Trail, and so on.
In addition to the Trail books, there was "Hakluyt's Voyages" edited by Irwin Blacker (Viking, 1965), an anthology of maps and papers collected during the 1500s by Hakluyt, an Oxford don who documented the birth of the English Empire. In most instances, the authors of the various documents were eyewitnesses to events, and they record battles, explorations, and journeys by people of action, men such as Raleigh and Drake, Hawkins and Cavendish.
There was modern history on the table and plenty of biography, anchors of the pile. His everyday reading might include a novel here and there and various thrillers and mysteries to lighten the going, but the principal books were non-fiction.
When we moved house, the library got shuffled and the table beside the bed became a hallway fixture with a new marble top to hide the scratches. A different bedside situation was required and so a large chest replaced the table. Now there is more stacking space and room for more stuff. Hakluyt and Trails got moved into our library, and their places were taken by a bedside pile of contemporary non-fiction.
Then Michael got sick without any warning. He got the kind of sick he never bargained for, reading pile notwithstanding. After all the probes and scans, he began chemo at the local hospital here in Burlington, Vermont. No going to New York or Boston, he wanted to stay near home in the hands of doctors and staff he has come to rely upon and respect.
The dire prognosis did not stand in the way of good, solid, dependable reading. I see he has finished "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals" by Jane Mayer (Doubleday, 2008), "The Forever War" by Dexter Filkins (Knopf, 2008), "The Coldest Winter" by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" by Tim Weiner (Doubleday, 2007), and "Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life" by Alice Schroeder (Bantam, 2008). He owns all these books, and he remembers most of what he reads.
A lot of this reading was dragged into the chemo salon, and it kept him company during the long infusion process. When the poison put him in bed, he'd fall asleep with one of these hefty tomes balanced on his chest. On he went, reading his way to a place in his head where the awfulness of what he was going through could not penetrate.
One day a suspicious-looking, plain-brown-wrapper package arrived in the mail. The return address was somewhere in Wisconsin from a sender unknown to either of us. "It looks like a bomb, you open it," my husband said. So I took a big breath and slit the package, turning my head away: save the eyes, to hell with the hands. Inside was a thick old book, dust jacket faded and frayed. "Kabloona: A White Man Alone in the Arctic Among the Eskimos," ordered through an Amazon used book dealer by a friend in Texas.
Our friend is an exquisite reader, but we wondered what she could possibly be thinking. "Read it," she said, "and talk to me about it when you're done." So Michael took this thick book by Gontran de Poncins (Raynal & Hitchcock, 1941) and started to read. It was slow going at first but it went with him, in and out of the doctors' offices and the chemo sessions and back into his book-filled lair at home. He was seldom without "Kabloona" and it got to be a kind of a joke.
The book is no joke, he explained. It is the account by Poncins of time spent in 1938 among the Eskimos of King William Land, right next to the North Pole. Poncins was more than a mere traveler, although he had traveled a lot. He said he was searching for "men who did not hate one another, for men who did not grab from one another, but shared what they had among all of their kind." They were the Netsilik (Inuit) people who hunted and fished and lived in igloos. As Poncins neared his destination at the end of August, having got there in stages, he was told, "Your lungs will freeze. You will be locked up in an icy prison, unable to get out." Amundsen had been there in 1905, and his passage was marked by rock cairns and two beams nailed together in the shape of a cross.
Poncins says he had to get on with the Eskimo if he was going to live with them and "a good part of this book, therefore, is the story of the encounter of two mentalities, and of the gradual substitution of the Eskimo mentality for the European mentality within myself."
Although "Kabloona" is not the kind of book you can read straight through, Michael seemed drawn into that frozen landscape and remained enthralled by the descriptions and the characters. "Kabloona" (which means "white man") saw him through his own passage deep into the Arctic world of cancer.
You might say this is escape reading, but we're all for that. I read memoirs to compare my own course with the life courses of others. I read to check how I'm doing. My husband, who these days has so little control over the effects of various so-called "treatments," has carried on with his magnificent reading. He plowed ahead when he was almost too sick to hold up the large volumes he seems to prefer. He gradually emerged from chemo (and from "Kabloona") and now carries "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" by James M. McPherson (Oxford, 1988) to daily radiation in a book bag slung across his walker.
You might say he is reading to save his life.
Elinore Standard is the co-editor with Laura Furman of "Bookworms: Great Writers and Readers Celebrate Reading." (Carroll & Graf, 1997). She and Michael have been seasonal residents of Chilmark since the 1960s.