Having completed the first Pippi Lognstocking book in 1945, illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman teamed up with her cousin Pipaluk Freuchen to create Ivik the Fatherless, later published in the UK as Eskimo Boy. Pipaluk was the half Inuit daughter of Ingrid’s uncle, the famous Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen (surely the inspiration for Pippi’s pirate father). Until the age of 12 she was raised among the Greenland Inuit at Thule, one of the world’s most northernmost towns.
Peter had already written a number of books on the lives of the Inuit, which were adapted into the gritty MGM movie Eskimo in 1933 (in which he also starred). Although writing for a younger audience than her father, Pipaluk also remained true to the harsh existence of the Inuit people. The book has an almost documentary feel, its stories read as if they’ve been written word for word from first hand accounts. It’s shockingly vivid for a children’s book. In the opening chapter Ivik sets out full of pride on his first hunting expedition with his father.
But it all ends in disaster when an encounter with a walrus goes horribly wrong.
‘The walrus has already driven its tusks into his father’s back. His father does not scream; strangely enough he looks as though he were laughing aloud. That look must be from pain Ivik knows. Now his father’s face disappears. The walrus drags him under. That is the last Ivik ever sees of his father.’
Returning to his family shattered but stoic, Ivik forgets to secure his kayak. As they wail in the igloo it washes out to sea, leaving his family cut off from the rest of their community on the mainland. He is left as their sole provider, and embarks on a rites of passage that takes him through starvation, desperation and eventual salvation as Ivik faces a polar bear on the ice.
Ingrid Vang Nyman isn’t the first artist you’d associate with this sort of grittily realistic adventure. She’s a Modernist and often deliberately un-lifelike. Her work on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi stories is full of movement, peculiar perspective and vivid flat colour. Ivik on the other hand is rendered in black and white and for the most part deals with the travails of a family huddled in an igloo growing weak from starvation.
But Vang Nyman takes every effort to get her subject matter right, studying animals at the zoo and carefully researching different cultures at the ethnographic collections of the National Museum in Copenhagen. Some of this can be seen in the later adventures of Pippi on one of her visits to Canny Canny Island.
The detailed research is showcased in several pages which lay out the various hunting methods of the Inuit. We learn exactly the best way to kill, skin, cook and eat foxes, seals, bears and anything else that’s unfortunate to come into contact with the Inuit.
Meat is almost a character in itself. It consumes most of Ivik’s thoughts and his family use every last part, dressing in it, using it as fuel and eating it raw, cooked, and even rotten. There are some unflinching scenes of slaughter and butchery that will make readers old and young think again about where their meat comes from.
Readers of Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother will find much to enjoy here – as that book also begins with the death of the hero’s father and ends with a thrilling fight with a bear. But there’s a strange sort of heroism at play in Eskimo Boy. Ivik, although driven by a need to prove himself and save his family, faces the creature in desperation. Killing large animals is not particularly thrilling, it’s a dirty, messy business.
This was Vang Nyman and Freuchen’s only book together, but the illustrator created many more wonderful scenes from Greenland that are full of the same playfulness that defined her work on Pippi. These full colour pieces were published posthumously as Människornas land (Summertime), a lighter story following the adventures of a younger group of Inuit children.
Interestingly Summertime was based on Ingrid Vang Nyman’s illustrations, rather than the other way around. It makes me wonder whether there are any other sets of her ethnographic painting sitting in an archive, just waiting for a story to accompany them. What an amazing privilege that would be for a writer…