Researching Call of the Whales

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

When I go around schools, one of the things children often ask is if I have ever written an animal book and I usually say no, that I don't really find animals all that terribly fascinating, and I can almost hear the intake of breath and all those charming kids who adore ponies or puppies recoil in horror from this awful woman who prefers people to beasties. But although I did enjoy horsey stories when I was a child-reader myself (anyone who didn't love Black Beauty is quite possibly the devil in shoe leather), it's true that I find people more interesting these days.

But then, about a year ago, I was editing a book on the mammals of Ireland for Town House, a publishing company I used to work for. There was a massive chapter on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in that book, as we have a huge number of species of whale in Irish waters. They are mostly just passing through, but still, there are lots of them. And as I was reading about all 47 or something species of 'Irish' whales, I started to think about how interesting whales are. It occurred to me that a lot of kids are interested in whales in a save-the-whale, Greenpeacey sort of way, and I wondered if many of them really knew very much about whales and how they live, and so I began to get the glimmering of an idea of writing a whaley book.

At first, I thought what I would like to do was to focus on the idea of how whales live in 'families', a bit like people in some ways, and on how intelligent they seem to be (though that is actually disputed by some scientists). But I couldn't see how I could do that. I didn’t want to write a book actually from the point of view of the whales, as I thought that wouldn’t really wash with older readers. There is something a bit twee, isn't there, about having animals speak in the first person. Black Beauty got away with it, but then that has been done, and you can't do it again, unless you can do it at least as well, and I certainly don't know whales as well as Anna Sewell knew horses. So I didn't entertain the idea of writing from the point of view of the whales.

But then, how else could I write about whales? I wondered. I'll have to write about people who live or work with whales, I thought, and so I began to think about who these people are. Now, you can find whales practically anywhere on the planet where there is sea, but somehow the idea of the Eskimo or Inuit people sprang first to my mind, and I decided I would try to see if I could write a book about whales and Inuit. Also, there was the added bonus that these people live in such a very beautiful and extraordinary environment, so I started to try to find out about them and their relationship to whales.

When I got down to the research, most of which I did on the Internet (though I had in fact been to the outer part of the Arctic Circle myself on summer holidays in Scandinavia a very long time ago), I found that I became more and more fascinated by the Arctic itself and that the landscape began to be at least as important as the whales.

I thought at first I would try to create a sort of dreamscape Arctic, rather than setting the story in any particular Arctic location, because of course the thing about the Arctic is that lots of countries are part of it, the tips of lots of northerly countries, that is. But everything I read about any one Arctic country seemed to be local to that country and I couldn't really get much of a handle on 'the Arctic' in a general sort of way. So in the end, I decided I would set the book in specific countries, and that I would choose three separate locations, because I wanted to cover different aspects of Arctic life in different places.

That meant that I had to have the book take place over three episodes. This is quite a tricky thing, structurally, because it is hard to sustain a plot if you are moving over time and space, so what I decided to do was to have a very loose plot structure (some people have rather unkindly called this my 'plotless novel') and to have the landscape and the main character's relationship to the landscape and the whales as the main focus of interest in the novel.

But that is not enough to hold a book together so that it makes sense, so I decided that, since the action was going to take place over three separate summers, I would also make this a novel about growing up. So at the beginning of the book, the main character, Tadhg, or Tyke as he is nicknamed in the Arctic, is quite young, maybe about ten or so; then in the middle episode, which is the one that is most focused on whales, he is a little older, maybe about twelve; and by the end of the book, some time has passed since his last trip to the Arctic, so by now he is fifteen, and beginning to leave his childhood, which includes trips to the Arctic and being obsessed by whales, behind him.

At the beginning of the book, Tyke has a rather fairy-tale attitude to the Arctic, but by the end he has come to accept that this is a rough, tough place and the people who live in such harsh conditions have to have a tough streak in them. He learns that his western attitudes to whales and whaling are not appropriate in that environment, and that the people who are native to those areas have their own long tradition of relationship with whales. His friend Henry, an Eskimo boy whom he meets in Alaska, helps him to understand that the native attitude to whales is not cruel but deeply empathetic, even though it may look cruel to outsiders with other attitudes.

By the way, while I was working on the book, I came up against the thorny issue of the words Eskimo and Inuit. Some Arctic people are very angry about the use of the word Eskimo by outsiders to describe them and they prefer their own word Inuit, and so of course I have used that word in most cases. But it's quite complicated, because not all the people westerners think of as Eskimos are in fact Inuit -- different groups have different words to describe themselves. And then to my surprise I discovered that in Alaska, the term Eskimo is actually preferred, because it doesn't assume that all the Arctic people are in fact Inuit when many of them aren't, so it got very confusing. In the end, I used Eskimo when I was talking specifically about Alaska, and Inuit when talking about other groups of peoples, especially in Canada, but I did also occasionally use Inupiat and Kalaallit as well. 'Arctic people' seems like a useful catch-all, but it's not accurate either, because there are other peoples in parts of the Arctic who are not related to the Inuit, but belong to different ethnic groups altogether, so it was tricky to sort it all out. But I think it is important to try to find ways of describing people that they are happy with. Nobody wants to be stuck with a label that somebody else invented, especially if that somebody else has been an invader or an oppressor.

I made my main character an Irish child, because I felt that I didn't know enough about the Arctic peoples to create an Inuit or Eskimo character, and also I thought it would be interesting to look at a region like the Arctic from an outsider's point of view. Very often, an outsider's point of view is a more interesting approach to anywhere, because the outsider is likely to reflect on the place, whereas the person who is born in a place just takes it for granted. That's fine if your setting is just a backdrop, but I wanted to make the Arctic part of the fabric of the novel rather than just a backdrop, so it was handy to have an outsider through whom to look at the Arctic.
Also, having my main character an Irish boy who visits the Arctic from time to time and each time at a different place gave me the opportunity to set the novel in different parts of the Arctic over different episodes of the story. If I had chosen an Inuit or Eskimo child as my hero, I would probably have had to limit the story to one place.

Siobhán Parkinson