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Yuri Rytkheu: Сон в начале тумана (A Dream in Polar Fog)

John MacLennan was the son of a librarian, born in Port Hope, on the shore of Lake Ontario. He studied for two years at the University of Toronto and then, despite the pleadings of his parents and fiancée, suddenly left, making his way to Nome and to a ship. There he met Hugh Grover, captain of a ship. They became firm friends and set off, planning even to reach Siberia. The year is 1910.

Unfortunately, they did not plan well and suddenly realised winter was approaching and the ice was spreading. They hurriedly set off for home but the ice was freezing faster than they were travelling and they were finally caught in Enmyn in Chukotka. They remain trapped, though there is a village there and one of the locals, Orvo, speaks English, having worked in the US (and been treated very badly).

Orvo tells them that it is possible that a wind will blow the sea ice away and they can escape. However, they are impatient and plan to dynamite the ice. John is in charge and plants five charges. Four go off. The fifth does not. John investigates. The fifth charge explodes leaving John with most of his hands blown away. The nearest doctor is many miles away but Hugh bribes the locals with Winchester rifles to take him there, so three men do so. However, when they stop at the settlement of another tribe, it is clear that John’s hands have become infected and he risks gangrene. Fortunately, a local woman has experience of this from frostbite and is able to clear up the infection. As there is no further need to go to the doctor they return, only to find the ship has left, taking advantage of the ice briefly clearing. John is condemned to spend the winter there.

John is not surprisingly initially upset but gradually adapts. One of the locals makes him leather attachments for his stumps and he is able to use a rifle and write (after a fashion). He becomes more used to their various strange customs and soon becomes a part of the community, even suggesting he stay with them permanently.

The rest of the book involves his life with them. He takes time to adapt to their customs, including their religion (he is not religious) and they take time to adapt to him. There is one person who is particularly resentful of him. However, most of them are very sympathetic and helpful.

A lot happens, including tragedies, disasters and a bitterly cold winter, when they almost starve. The main issues, however, are contacts with whites. Various expeditions come their way, including, in particular the Vilhjalmur Stefansson expedition, which has John worried that there will be more whites coming and therefore more disruption to the way of life of the Chuckchi.

He becomes very much involved with a man called Robert Carpenter, who works for the Hudson Bay Company. Carpenter is helpful, particularly when trading is involved but he is also very sharp and happy to outwit the Chuckchi, which John tries to prevent. As a result of Carpenter and John’s involvement, the Chuckchi are able to make use of modern technology, in particular guns and outboard motors but also, sadly, alcohol.

The whites, however, can be harmful, slaughtering animals such as walruses (for their tusks) and whales, leaving the Chukchi short. When, towards the end of the book, gold is discovered, things get worse.

They do not have much contact with the outside world but are aware of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Carpenter, in particular, is fearful of the Bolsheviks and warns John of the threat it will pose for the Chukchi.

Above all, the book is about how a white man adapts to a life very different from the one he was brought up in and, to the surprise of some, including Carpenter in particular, he is not out to exploit the Chukchi but be part of them, finding their way of life superior to that of his people.

Rytkheu tells his story very well, showing that the Chukchi are not perfect but, as it is written from their perspective, also showing them as more honourable and certainly more respectful of the natural environment. We can only sympathise with their views.

Publishing history

First published by Sovetskai︠a︡ Rossii︠a︡ in 1970
First published in English by Archipelago Books in 2006
Translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse