The history of European contact with the New World is full of exaggerated tales of discovery and colonization, and lacking in tales of conquest and enslavement. The Spanish and Portuguese carved up South America while England and France moved into North America and established their own colonies. Native tribes all over the continent fell to steel and industry until only shadows remained of their former empires. But, over four hundred years before these Europeans “discovered” the New World, there were the Vikings, and they did not stay for long.
It is a commonly held understanding that the first European to set foot on North American soil was Leif Erikson, son of the famed Viking Erik the Red who colonized Greenland. Leif Erikson journeyed West from Greenland across Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea, eventually landing in modern day Newfoundland, which he named Vinland. He built his longhouse in Leifsbudir and returned to Greenland with stories of wild wheat and grapes, exaggerating the truth of his discovery, as is the modus operandi of most explorers. Most of what we know about Leif Erikson stems from Norse epics written well after his death, but Leif was only the first Norseman to arrive in what is now Canada. After his expedition returned to Greenland, Leif’s sister, Freydris Eiriksdottir, mounted her own expedition to this land of grapes and wine. Once settled, the Vikings encountered the Native tribes, which they called skraelings. Like all encounters with the Vikings, blood followed. She would be the last European to live in the New World until the fifteenth century.
The Wolf in the Whale is not the story of Freydris’ expedition to Vinland, or, rather, it is not only the story of her expedition. This is the story about an Inuit angakkuq, or shaman, named Omat. Omat and their family lives in the far north, in present day Nunavut, near the arctic circle. Omat is born shortly after their father’s death and their birth is difficult. Their mother perishes during labor and Taqqiq, the spirt who lives on the moon, tries to kill the newborn. Omat is born with their father’s spirit and is raised as a man born in a woman’s body. According to Inuit beliefs, we carry the spirits of our ancestors with us. Omat is the niece, adopted daughter, and older brother of their aunt/sister/mother. As described later in the novel, they contain multitudes. The Inuit and other Native American cultures accepted that there is a third gender, both and neither man or woman, and we do not learn Omat’s gender until many pages into the novel. The Wolf in the Whale is told almost entirely in a first-person narrative from Omat’s point-of-view, except for a few brief third-person sections which detail occurrences that Omat could not have witnessed. The story begins with Omat’s childhood and learning to hunt and commune with the spirits, a communion which eventually leads to their contact with the gods of the Inuit and the Norse.
Omat does not stay with their family for long. So long in isolation, they rejoice when another Inuit hunter, Issuk, arrives with his family. That joy is short lived as Issuk reveals himself to be utterly cruel and callous. He kills Omat’s grandfather and takes them and their brother, Kiasik. While journeying to an area where they can hunt whales, they witness the arrival of a Viking longboat, the first to ever travel that far north. These giants attack the camp, kill everyone except Omat, and kidnap Kiasik to keep as a thrall. This first contact between Inuit and Norseman is short and violent. Omat swears that they will rescue their brother and slaughter the Vikings for what they did and begins their journey southward. The journey is not easy, and Omat eventually adopts a trio of wolfdog pups abandoned by their pack. As they head south, they encounter one of the Vikings from that initial encounter and save their life. Brandr is a warrior on the run from his own people, tired of the endless cycle of violence. The two of them are drawn together by a shared desire to escape this violence and haunted by the things they have seen. Up until meeting Brandr, Omat despise their female side, but comes to accept their status as both man and woman in his company.
The Wolf in the Whale is not just about Omat and Brandr, however. It is about gods and spirits. In this novel, the gods of all cultures are real. Our belief in them gives them life and strength to influence the world. In their journey, Omat meets their own patron spirit, Singarti, the white wolf, along with the other animal spirits of the Inuit. They clash with Taqqiq, the Moon Man, and feuds with Sanna, the woman who lives beneath the waves. From far shores comes Loki and Thor, Odin and Freya. The Norse gods feel to this new land believing that Ragnarok, the end of the gods, is no longer destined to occur. Instead of a final, glorious battle against their ancient enemies, they will perish as the world’s beliefs turn to the Christ. Marching into Europe from the deserts of the Middle East, this new god threatens the Aesir’s very existence. In The Wolf in the Whale, all religions are connected, and all gods are real. But the real innovation is the crossover. The spirits of the Inuit are not just that. They are also the Jotuns, the frost giants, and this New World is Jotunheim.
This is not just a novel about the Inuit and the Norse, gods and spirits. This is a novel about gender roles and violence perpetrated against women throughout history. This is not a novel for the faint of heart. Just under one third of the way into the novel, Omat is raped. Issuk, the cruel hunter who arrives in their settlement, cannot accept that Omat is both man and woman and declares they will take Omat as another wife. Issuk rapes Omat in a brutal, honest passage. For an indeterminate amount of time after the rape, Omat suffers from sever PTSD, only made worse by Kiasik, their brother, deciding to willingly go hunting with Issuk and not stepping to protect them. Later in the book, after Omat and Brandr have come to know and trust one another, Brandr tells them of his past as a Viking. Before meeting Omat, he had raped three women. The third killed herself rather than be helped up after the act. There is no censorship here. Brandr admits his deeds and admits that there is no forgiveness for his acts. There is only the steady march forward and the act of stopping others from repeating his crimes.
The Wolf in the Whale is a great work of historical fantasy, though it cannot be ignored that the author is not Inuit. However, it is clear that Brodsky respects this culture and wants nothing more than to share it with the world. Omat story spans years and miles, told in a brutal honesty but never letting go of a certain optimism. Omat struggles, but never stops believing that they can protect their family. Later, when they grow to love Brandr, Omat is reminded that the world is not only suffering. Love is far stronger. This is not the story of the New World, nor is it the story of the Vikings discovering Vinland. Or, rather, it is not only those things. This is the story of Omat and, like them, it contains multitudes.
The Wolf in the Whale can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 10 days
Next on the List: Polaris Rising, by Jessie Mihalik