Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman who Saved the Polaris Expedition

By Sheila Nickerson

New York: Jeffrey P. Tarcher / Putnam, 2002

Reviewed by Kenn Harper


Sheila Nickerson has written a brief biography of Tookoolito, or Hannah, interpreter and assistant to Charles Francis Hall from his third month in the Arctic in 1860 until his mysterious death in northern Greenland 11 years later. Under the tutelage of Tookoolito and her husband, Ebierbing, Hall became one of the first Arctic explorers to adopt the clothing and travel methods of the Inuit, thereby enhancing his possibility of success. Midnight to the North provides accurately the essentials of Hannah’s short and eventful life. But the author’s focus is clearly on Hall’s third expedition. The first 32 of Hannah’s 38 years are dealt with in the first two chapters, pages 1 to 37, almost a page per year. The rest of the book is devoted to the Polaris Expedition and, in particular, to the experiences of nineteen people who were separated from the ship and drifted southward on an ice floe. That drift, for six months over a distance of approximately 1,200 miles, is the most amazing tale of perseverance in the copious literature of Arctic survival stories.

Midnight to the North is the third book on the Polaris expedition to appear in fifteen months. Nickerson takes her title from a poem by Emily Dickenson. But it is the sub-title that is troubling. To portray the life of Tookoolito as "The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition" is simply dishonest. For starters, Tookoolito was obviously with only one of the two groups of survivors, the group on the icefloe. The focus of this book is on that party. And within that group, no one person can be given credit for having saved the party. If credit had to be given to one, and only one, person, it would have to go to Ebierbing, known to white men as Joe, the more competent of the two Inuit hunters who kept the expedition supplied with food on their epic drift. A more honest appraisal would have to apportion the credit three ways – to Joe, to George Tyson, the American who organized and co-ordinated activities on the icefloe, and to Hannah.

But Nickerson doesn’t like Ebierbing much. She makes her intentions clear at the outset when she states: "I wanted to find and bring to the surface women of the Arctic whose extraordinary lives had been ignored, glossed over, historically cast aside – while the men they assisted ran away with the fame" (page 4). In order to tell "how the indigenous people made the white man’s adventure possible" (page 6) – surely a worthwhile objective – and focus on Tookoolito, she has to sideline Ebierbing. Indeed, Nickerson’s treatment of Ebierbing can only be understood if one assumes Tokoolito to be a metaphor for the married couple, the partnership of Tookoolito and Ebierbing; only in that context can this statement be understood: "She had led the dogs and pulled the sledges, fished and hunted, cooked and sewed, found food when none was available, kept the lamp burning…, made conversation between tribes possible, and helped re-create the story of the lost Franklin expedition" (page 7). Or this, grudgingly: "Their combined dedication to practical needs and moral principles created a powerful, cohesive energy that would be critical to the salvation of all the ice floe prisoners." (page 64).

Most scholars lay the blame for Hall’s death by poisoning on Emil Bessels, scientist. But Nickerson has a different view. "My suspicions lean toward Budington," she says (page 49). His motives, she claims, were "seated in much deeper, more complex emotional depths… fed by alcohol" (page 49). Indeed, she downplays the many faults of Hall, while making much of Budington’s. On the subject of the exploitation of Tookoolito, Ebierbing and their baby, Tukeliketa, for promotional purposes, she elegantly states that "the line between promotion for positive purposes and exploitation was as thin as young ice" (page 28). Nickerson mentions Budington’s earlier falling out with Hall, in June 1863, when Hall learned that Budington planned to leave on a whaling voyage to Baffin Island and planned to take Tookoolito and Ebierbing with him and return them home. What she doesn’t mention is Budington’s motivation – sympathy for the Inuit and concern over their deteriorating health even while Hall continued to exhibit them. The death of Tukeliketa in February of 1863 can be laid squarely at the feet of Hall. Yet she claims that Budington was a "danger" and that "he and Hall were now locked in a jealous combat that would prove more deadly than Hall could have imagined." (page 32)

Nickerson performs another indignity to the memory of Sidney O. Budington when she talks about the burials of Inuit in Starr Cemetery in Groton. Budington occasionally took Inuit to Groton to winter with him and his family. Most survived to return north, but those few who died in Groton were buried there by Budington. Some of the grave markers even commemorate the lives of Inuit not buried there, but who died on board ship in Budington’s care on the way back north. There is no "small enclosure of Inuit graves" (page 6) in Starr Cemetery, as Nickerson claims, although there is a small group of Inuit graves. She claims that the Inuit dead were not welcomed into the Budington family plot and that, instead, they are "nowhere near the Captain." (page 164). This is not true. The Inuit dead, including Hannah, Tukeliketa and Punna, are not far from Budington’s own grave.

Punna’s headstone is particularly touching. The story of her life on the Polaris icefloe is chiseled in tiny letters into the grave marker. It ends with a line which Nickerson records thus: "I could not get the final piece. It seemed to be, ‘Of such is the kingdom of love.’ I wanted it to be ‘love,’ not ‘heaven’… I did rubbing after rubbing, but the word – the final word – is nearly gone… I returned later in the day for another attempt but still could not resolve it." (page 163) In her chapter notes, she reveals that Nourse’s 1879 book gives the word as "heaven." This may be a dramatic device to show Nickerson’s empathy for the young girl buried there, but it is dishonest. I’ve visited this grave many times. The word is clearly "heaven."

I have the usual quibbles over details and accuracy. Hall did not die "soon after the expedition got under way" (page 2) but rather on November 8, 1871, over four months after the ship left Brooklyn Navy Yard. The same page refers to Blake’s book, Arctic Experiences, which focuses on Tyson, as existing "only in a small number of libraries and on microfiche," whereas it is well-known and often offered in the catalogues of book dealers specializing in Arctic literature – a recent check on the Internet site, Advanced Book Exchange, found seven copies offered. After two references to Hall having met Tookoolito in Cumberland Sound in 1860 (page 3 and 16), the author contradicts herself on page 18 when she has the vessel south of Cumberland Sound at Cyrus Field Bay at the mouth of Frobisher Bay where it wintered and where Hall’s first meeting with the Inuit took place. The names of Captain Sidney O. Budington and his uncle James Buddington are both spelled as Budington throughout, although James always spelled his surname with two "d"s. There is no proof that Tookoolito and Ebierbing were ever married in England, let alone in John Bowlby’s house (pages 15 and 64).

There are a number of instances of geographical ignorance. The icefloe party is said to be drifting down "the coast of Labrador (now called Newfoundland)" (page 119) and later is said to be "in the lower part of the Labrador Sea, halfway down the Newfoundland coast" (page 127). Labrador and Newfoundland are geographically distinct parts of the province of "Newfoundland and Labrador", and the icefloe was off the coast of Labrador. On page 168, she has Niantilik at the mouth of Cumberland Sound instead of well up the south-west coast of the sound. The statement that the Polaris story now attracts particular interest because "the geographical area of the Polaris ice drift story… is almost entirely within the bounds of the newly created… Inuit province of Nunavut" (page 8) is completely ludicrous. This story takes place almost entirely at sea, on an ice floe; the only parts of the Polaris story to take place on land happen in northern Greenland, in Newfoundland when the icefloe party is finally rescued, and in the United States. No part of the Polaris story takes place in the territory (not province) of Nunavut, except for the rescue vessel Tigress putting in briefly at Cumberland Sound. She describes the taking of a bearded seal and notes that "if not for the seal, they would have soon been in darkness." Hardly. They were close to the Arctic Circle, it was March 2, they were drifting south and the days were lengthening. On page 64 is the perplexing statement that the sun was seven feet above the horizon (Oct 26).

Similarly, Nickerson is weak on matters of Inuktitut language. On page 23, she talks about the birth of Tookoolito’s first child, Tukeliketa, whom she called "Johny" and notes that Hall called him "Little Butterfly;" perhaps it should have been noted that Hall’s reason for calling him that is because the name means "butterfly." On page 36, the name of the adopted daughter, Punna, is said to mean "little child"; in fact it is Hall’s mis-spelling of the Inuktitut word "panik" which means "daughter". On page 66, there is no etymological relationship between the word "igloo" (iglu) for "dwelling" and "agloo" (aglu), the seal’s birthing lair above the ice.

Suddenly, on page 81, having made a cameo appearance earlier in the book, Nickerson’s aging mother inexplicably becomes part of the story. The woman is dying, and Nickerson balances her time between visits to her mother and her research into Tookoolito’s life. The many attempts to draw a link between Tookoolito and Nickerson’s mother detracts from this work. In an earlier book, Disappearance: A Map, Nickerson successfully wove a beautiful mosaic of the stories of Arctic explorers and her own personal experiences in her Alaskan home. In that book, it worked wonderfully well. Here, it doesn’t. The comparisons are inapt, and Nickerson’s mother is a sad distraction. Similarly, there is no reason for the reader to learn that Nickerson once edited a 1,000-page book on astrophysics and rafted down the Colorado River with her husband. I’m troubled, too, at the admissions of hurried research. Of a visit to the Smithsonian Institution, she writes: "I was in a hurry. I was also tired, after flying all night. I had one-and-a-half days to find what I was looking for" (page 99), and "I was running out of time. Could I find it? Would I fail?" (page 100). Nickerson’s writing is often beautiful, as one would expect from a former poet laureate of Alaska, but this would have been a much better, if shorter, book without the mother and the research anecdotes.