Winter Read #1: White Heat

WhiteHeat

“He wants to locate his ancestor’s body. Reckons it could be on Craig. Bringing an assistant – just the two of them. Think they might be able to get some TV company interested.”
On the surface, this sounded like the perfect gig. Small party, presumably with some knowledge of local conditions. No hunting involved, and she knew Craig Island as well as anyone. It seemed unlikely that they would find Sir James Fairfax’s body, she thought, but you could never tell. Under all that snow and ice, the tundra was one great open-air charnal house, bones, antlers, skeletons scattered all over. Nothing ever rotted or even stayed buried long. There was no deep archaeology, no layering of history here. Southerners often marveled at the way the recent and ancient past were equally present, as though there had only ever been one yesterday, and everything in the past had happened on that single day.

White Heat by M.J. McGrath

White Heat by M.J. McGrath

White Heat is a mystery novel about Edie Kiglatuk, an Inuit woman living in northern Nunavut, who begins investigating a series of deaths in her small town after a loved one appears to commit suicide. Edie is a former polar bear hunter turned local guide and part-time teacher with a history of alcoholism. After two local deaths – one a qallunaat (a foreigner) and one an apparent suicide – Edie believes that something larger is happening beneath their noses. Determined to bring it to light, Edie begins an investigation into the events of her own time as well as her family’s history.

When I first started reading White Heat, I thought that M.J. McGrath must be Inuit herself – the setting and the culture were so detailed and realistic that I felt entirely immersed. I was quite surprised to find that the author is not in fact Inuit; she is a researcher and a writer of nonfiction, and I can definitely tell that she has brought that skill to her fiction writing. White Heat did not come across as an idealistic imagining of the North, nor did it feel like a series of complaints against it. Instead, I truly felt as though I were there, meeting real people and witnessing real culture. Edie speaks often of the difference between Inuit and qallunaat (non-Inuits, usually white people). She observes behaviors that I would never consider, such as wearing watches, or what type of coat someone wears. The author also often observes the food that Edie eats (things like caribou tongue, blubber, and walrus gut), and it helped maintain the setting – I never found myself passively imagining Edie eating a sandwich or chicken noodle soup. Instead, I was able to consistently imagine Edie as a real person and an Inuit, and with the differences of her culture highlighted, I was better able to see the similarities between my culture and hers – the conflict among step families (Edie and Willa), the tendency to avoid unpleasant investigation when I’d rather stay home (Derek), and mental illness and substance abuse.

Aside from the realistic setting and developed culture, Edie is undoubtedly one of the best-developed characters I have read. She is incredibly stubborn and often makes choices that seem like poor ones in the moment, but her own determination wins out in the end, and she absolutely would not be the heroine of the novel otherwise. Edie struggles with alcoholism, and I felt this struggle was portrayed well – she demonstrates that her alcoholism is an ongoing struggle, not something she has “overcome”. At one point in the book, it also directly hampers her ability to pursue leads, and I liked that it was shown to truly be a problem for her, unlike many books that treat alcoholism as a character trait rather than an illness. Derek too exhibits character flaws while still remaining likable. Derek is the local law enforcement, and while he demonstrates a tendency to “get along” rather than aggressively pursue possible violations of the law, he still has a strong moral core, and when Edie spurs him into action, Derek proves to be a worthy ally to Edie. Even the minor character of White Heat, though, show good development. Edie’s ex-husband Sammy is still an alcoholic with a history of violence, and he often stands in the way of Edie’s investigation, but still deeply loves his family and wants the best for him, even if he does not know what that might be. Edie’s step-son Willa blatantly dislikes Edie, but as the past is revealed, his disrespectful attitude is given a context, and he is still given the opportunity to act as an ally.

I admire M.J. McGrath’s ambition in the plot of White Heat – there are multiple murders, many lines of investigation, two locations, many guilty characters, and many that are (for the most part) innocent, even if you don’t think they will be. However with so many threads running, about two thirds through the novel I felt as if we had wandered away from the main plot. It did come back around and all the conflicts were resolved by the end, but I nearly lost track of things towards the end, and struggled a little with the resolution. I was rather disappointed by this – there was so much of the novel that was done extraordinarily well, and I was hoping to give this book a 10 out of 10. I definitely enjoyed reading White Heat, but the complexity of the mystery nearly got in its own way.

In all, I’ll rate White Heat an 8 out of 10. The complex characters and detailed setting will appeal to many readers, even those that do not often enjoy mysteries and thrillers. However, the overly complex plot did detract a little from my enjoyment of the novel, and others may feel the same.

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