Between Two Worlds is loosely based on the story of a sixteen-year-old Inuit girl known as Eqariusaq who lives with her husband, Angulluk in Greenland and her encounters with Arctic explorer, Robert Peary and his family at the beginning of the 1900's.
Robert Edwin Peary was an American who began exploring the Greenland ice sheet in the late 1800's. His goal was to be the first man to reach the North Pole. His first exploration of the Greenland ice cap was in 1886. In 1891 he undertook a second trip to Greenland to determine how extensive the ice cap was and if it would lead him to the North Pole. Peary made another expedition in 1893-94 and began investigating possible routes to the North Pole in the years from 1898 to 1902. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909.
Equariusaq spent a year living with Robert E. Peary and his family in America. Robert Peary and his wife Josephine who was pregnant at the time visited northern Greenland in the fall of 1893. Josephine gave birth to a baby girl, Marie Ahnighito on September 12. The following summer Josephine and Marie returned to America, taking twelve-year-old Eqariusaq with them. Eqariusaq was soon named Billy Bah because that is what little Marie, whom she babysat, called her. Living in Washington, Eqariusaq learned to speak English and also collected many keepsakes and trinkets to bring back to her home in Greenland to show her parents and her people. She returned with Josephine and Marie the following year.
When she was fifteen, Eqariusaq married Angulluk. In 1897 Peary took Eqariusaq's mother, Atangana, her father, Nuktaq and her adopted younger sister, Aviaq to America along with several other Inuit. Lacking immunity to diseases common to North America, they all died with the exception of a boy named Minik.
In August 1900, Josephine and Marie returned to Greenland with supplies for Robert Peary in what is supposed to be just a summer trip. It is at this point Between Two Worlds picks up the story. Billy Bah is hunting for eggs on the cliffs outside of Itta with her husband Angulluk when she spies Josephine's ship, the Windward, entering the harbour. She and Angulluk return to the village to greet the qallunaat or white men. Captain Bartlett questions Billy about the whereabouts of Peary and she tells him that Perry has wintered on Musk Ox land (known as Ellesmere Island). In Peary's winter cabin Billy reunites with Peary's wife, Josephine whom she calls Mitti Peary and his daughter Marie. Mitti Peary returns to the ship while Marie, Billy and an orphan boy known as Bag of Bones because he is so thin spend time together. Captain Bartlett tells Billy that they plan to sail to Musk Ox land to locate Lieutenant Peary. The Inuit decide to travel with the quallunaat because there are large herds of musk ox on the island and they need the meat for the upcoming winter. Angulluk has Billy put their request to Captain Bartlett and he agrees but says he will only take ten people. Bartlett takes the young, unmarried hunters as well as Billy Bah and her husband Angulluk, and Aleqasina (Ally) who is Peary's mistress, her Inuit husband Piugaattoq and their son, Anaukaq (Sammy).
Before leaving, Billy visits her parents graves which are empty because they died in America. Billy Bah asks the spirits of her parents for her to be the one to receive their spirits into new life, in the form of a baby. As an Inuit she believes that her parents spirits will return to the body of a new baby, forgetting their memories of their previous lives. They do not answer her.
On the voyage to Musk Ox land, Angulluk trades Billy Bah to a sailor named Duncan Gaylor. Billy is happy to be with Duncan who treats her well. She could not go to a man unless her husband traded her. Determined to make her own decisions, Billy convinces her husband to trade and this leads Duncan to arrange for Billy to stay with him for the rest of the voyage to Musk Ox land. As they journey around the sound, Billy and Ally skin and clean the seals their husband's catch. They arrive at Payer Harbor in Musk Ox land on the eighth morning. Billy accompanies Bartlett and Mitti Peary to the island where they learn from the villagers that Peary recently left for Fort Conger which is far north from the village. The previous winter Peary had most of his frost bitten toes amputated but he has healed well and can still walk. Bartlett decides he will leave Peary his supplies and the Windward will return to America. Marie is upset at this because she wants to see her father.
Despite a raging blizzard, Billy and Angulluk decide to leave the ship and move into the village. Unable to set up their tent during the storm, they stay in the igloo of an old woman named Navarana.The next morning they awaken to find that the Windward has been blown over onto its side on a shoal. The crew attempts to right the ship and unload all its cargo. Eventually the ship is righted when the tide comes in and Bartlett decides to try to leave the harbour as it is rapidly freezing. Attempts to dynamite a huge iceberg in its path are unsuccessful and the Windward becomes trapped when the harbour freezes over five days later. Angulluk goes hunting with the other hunters for musk oxen while Billy and Ally work on sewing in Navarana's igloo along with her daughter Mikihoq and her two children Tooth Girl (Akitsinnguaq) and Magtaaq. Navarana does not approve of Ally and Billy spending time with the quallunaaq (white men). However Ally and Billy feel that the wealth they acquire in the form of axes and rifles are worth it.
With the ship saved, Mitti Peary and Marie come to Navarana's igloo to ask the Inuit to make them clothing for the winter. Billy is happy because she is able to negotiate a trade of guns and ammunition in exchange for the clothing and it also means a chance to see Duncan once again. Ally and Billy fight over who is to make Marie's kapatak. During the exchange Ally reveals to Mitti Peary that Sammy is Peary's son. Despite being shocked Mitti Peary decides that Ally will make Marie's kapatak while Billy will make hers. Navarana warns the two women to be careful; they can help the quallunaat survive the winter but they take what they want and then leave. She warns Billy that she needs to think about her husband and her life in their land.
Billy Bah, Ally, Akitsinnguaq (Tooth Girl) and Mikihoq return to the Windward to make Inuit clothing for Mitti Peary and also for Marie. At this time, Billy resumes relations with Duncan against the advice of Old Navarana. On the ship, Billy is approached by an older crew member, Office Sutter who wants to make plaster masks of Billy and the other Inuit. Initially they refuse but then Marie Peary and Akitsinnguaq and Mikihoq agree. While he is making the masks, Billy questions Sutter about her parents and how they died. From this conversation she suspects that both Sutter and Duncan are not revealing all they know about what happened to her parents in America.Billy becomes determined to learn the truth about what happened to her parents. She also becomes increasingly unhappy with both her husband and Duncan. Can she lead a life that is truly her own?
Between Two Worlds is a fascinating historical novel that captures the struggles of a young Inuit woman caught between the two worlds of her people and the white men who explore the high Arctic.
From the very beginning of the novel, Kirkpatrick gives her readers a sense of both the simplicity and the hardship of Inuit life in the early twentieth century. For example when Navarana tells Ally and Billy that she owes her life to the fact that her mother had an axe given to her by a white man who was Navarana's father. Billy indicates that "During very lean winters in Itta, mothers smothered their infant daughters. They allowed their sons to live because they'd grow up to provide for the community."
The Inuit view the long winter differently than the white men as Billy describes the dark winter as "cozy days of darkness that my family shared in our igloo."
Billy and Angulluk often greet each other by rubbing noses. They don't bathe so as to protect their skin from the dry cold. Billy tells Marie that the Inuit girls must grow up fast. "Boys need to hunt, or else we don't have enough food. And our people don't seem to live as long as yours. Or grow as tall."
Kirkpatrick weaves facts about Inuit life seamlessly into her story, describing how the people eat following Angulluk's return from a successful polar bear hunt and later on how the Inuit village on Musk Ox land uses all parts of the musk oxen.
The first part of the novel is almost entirely focused on providing the backstory of Billy Bah's relationship with the Peary's. When Billy goes on the Windward to sew clothing for Mitti Peary and Marie, she remembers in flashback her year with the Pearys in America. This provides the set up for the conflict Billy Bah experiences between her Inuit culture and that of the qallunaat. This conflict between two cultures is demonstrated best by Billy's difficult relationships with her husband Angulluk and the sailor Duncan Gaylor, each of whom represent their respective cultures. Billy is given in trade to Duncan by Angulluk. It was the Inuit custom for men to trade his wife to another man. "Now and then, a husband might lend his wife to another hunter for a few days, to help with his chores, ore relieve his boredom during the long winter. Such trades were never made with outsiders."
Billy cannot choose to go to a man unless her husband arranges such a trade. But when she is sent to Duncan, she likes his kind ways and manipulates her husband into arranging a trade for the duration of the voyage to Musk Ox land. When she returns to live with her husband on land, Billy is restless. She is happy to be with her husband once again but she longs for Duncan who feels the same. By Christmas with both Duncan and Angulluk vying for her attention and tension high between the two men, Billy comes to realize she loves both men. However, Billy begins to realize that Navarana's warning that she cannot be part of both worlds is probably true. When she discovers the truth about what happened to her parents in New York she is very angry and no longer trusts the qallunaat. She now believes that Navarana's advice about the qallunaat, "if they want something, they will use any excuse to have it, and they will forget you when it's convenient." is probably true. Mitti Peary risked Angulluk's life to find her husband and then risked both Angulluk, Billy and Bag of Bones' life a second time to locate Peary. Billy tries to get her husband to promise her he will not work for the Pearys again but he refuses.
Eventually Duncan begins to press Billy to leave Angulluk and to return with him to America. But Billy is determined that neither man will determine her future. She refuses to go with Duncan to America and when Angulluk refuses to promise never to trade her again, Billy decides she will leave him. Seeing how Peary reacts in his situation which is similar to hers - he has two wives and seems to live between two worlds, Billy decides she must be strong like Peary. The defining moment comes when Billy goes through the keepsakes she has collected from America. She realizes that these keepsakes were kept because she has wanted to return to America. Billy decides that she wants to remain in her land. The spirit of Navarana warns her not to hate the white men because she will not be able to control her own life. Billy realizes that she must see herself as equal to her husband and the qallunaat. She must be strong and make her own decisions. She finally does this when Peary asks her to return with him to Musk Ox land and make clothing for his expedition as he returns to try to make it to the North Pole. However Billy Bah doesn't do it for Peary's affirmation but because she likes to sew and she will have a new life.
Kirkpatrick has provided her readers with a great deal of background information outside of the story. A map of Greenland and a detailed note at the back of the novel providing readers further information about the real Robert E. Peary and Billy Bah are included as are numerous photographs. There is a list of Inuit words used in the story as well as a detailed list of the characters in the novel. Also provided are Endnotes with further information.
Readers will find some information on Eqariusaq from two articles in the online version of the Nunatsiaq. The second article is here.
Between Two Worlds by Katherine Kirkpatrick
New York: Wendy Lamb Books 2014