The Wolf in the Whale is a fantasy. It is a what if fantasy. It is a mixing of Inuit belief with Norse mythology. It is about the clash of cultures.
The story is told by Omat, a young Inuit who first tells of his life with his family, a family who needs more people, and then what happens when more Inuit show up, and then what happens when funny looking pale people show up.
The thing is that, if we are being honest, this is a story that while based in historical record is also for mind fields and must be handled with care and sensitivity, especially when told by a writer who is not of Inuit background.
Brodsky has appeared to succeed.
The culture of the Inuit is treated with respect and a lack of romanticism. It simply is. The matter of fact treatment of sled dogs, the killing of seals, the storytelling, and gender roles in the culture (this includes the use of a third gender). The focus on seal meat is important as well, and the author's note addresses the issue of the Inuit being condemned for still hunting seal meat today. She points out that the whole animal is used and directs the reader to Inuit sources about the importance of the seal in culture. Brodsky uses Inuit language as well. And even the writing style is slightly different when Omat tells the story as opposed to when the reader is given a glimpse of the what the various gods are up to.
This is important. Omat is telling the reader the tell, and Brodsky’s voice for the storytelling, her rendering of Omat’s voice is like reading the voice in the novel Sanaaq, or less lyrical Kuessipan or Split Tooth. The novel is far less episodic than those works, but the story telling voice of Omat mirrors them. It is far closer a book to them than to James Houston’s White Dawn. It is technically one novel, but it is also very much like a series of long set pieces or episodes, much like the episodic wring that Fonatine and Tagaq. Omat’s struggles during the first part of the book are those of survival. Of a people’s need for others and the issues that arise when a group is becoming too small because of tragedy.
The middle part of the book is at its most basic a first contact story as Omat and her people are faced with the arrival of the Norsemen. But it is a first contact story from the viewpoint of the invaded. The Norsemen are not the good guys. They are not where they should be. They are violent. But like the Inuit, they too are facing a cultural clash with the arrival and presence of Christians.
Omat’s view of the Norsemen is what we get, and these are the people who bring harm and destruction to her. But they also bring something else for she does form an unlikely friendship with one of them, an exile, a Viking who is tired of going a Viking. Brandr is actually the most problematic character in the novel because he is a Viking and all that entails in terms of raiding. In other words, he has raped. He is a rapist.
And with all this problems this brings in terms of plot, and the question of whether or not such a character can have a redemption arc, it should be noted that having Brandr committing rape when he was a Viking is actually a realistic aspect of the story. I would not have believed Brandr as the one good Viking who never did anything morally questionable at all when he was raiding because that would not believable. He is a counter to Omat, not a romantic lead but something else.
It isn’t the invaders who changed the Indigenous population. It is the Indigenous population that changes one invader, who was already changing.
Omat does have an arc but she does not lose her culture, and she is not a perfect woman either. She has killed without cause. She acknowledges this.
I’m not sure that we are suppose to see Brandr as a romantic lead but simply a product of his time, trapped in a similar way that Omat is but in a vastly different cultural series of expectations and roles.
The last third of the book is about the conflict between the gods. Another type of invasion as it were. It is the most wrenching part of the novel but it also fits historically. I’m not sure that the god solution is a bit realistic but it works historically if you look at the historic timeline.
There are other things I like about this book – the idea of the foretold one being, at least, genetically female. Omat is, loosely, what we would call trans. If you have read The Underground Girls of Kabul, you are somewhat familiar with the idea; though the Inuit practice is totally different. The novel itself makes excellent use of story telling and what story say about cultures.