“You’re under arrest in the name of the crown,” boomed Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police each week when he nabbed the bad guys on a popular radio show 50-some years ago. Fascination with the Mounties has a long history. They were romanticized by the Broadway musical and Hollywood film Rose Marie in the 1930s and depicted more recently in such television series such as Ren and Stimpy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Due South.
This summer the Mounties once again get their men in McKay Jenkins’ page-turner about the tragic murder of a couple Catholic missionary priests by two Inuit men near the Arctic Ocean. While the book is a carefully researched historical account, the chilling drama that Jenkins unfolds so effectively kept this reviewer spellbound despite the distractions of a week at a resort. Perhaps summer vacations are supposed to provide the time for reading good books.
Jenkins opens the story by describing the mission in 1912 of Jean-Baptiste Rouvière, a gentle, French-born priest assigned to preach the gospel along the Arctic Ocean coast of Canada’s Northwest Territory. A group of Inuit had just been contacted by Whites a few years earlier, and there were rumors that the Anglicans would also be launching a missionary effort in the area. Father Rouvière was a likeable, if naïve, character. He got along well with a trapper who helped him move north toward the Barren Lands, and he had an agreeable time wintering over in a cabin on Great Bear Lake with three men planning to explore the lower Coppermine River and adjoining Arctic Ocean coast for copper deposits the following spring.
Rouvière found the Inuit to be friendly in his initial, superficial contacts, even though he couldn’t speak a word of their language. But things turned sour in 1913 when a second priest who was assigned to join him in his mission, Guillaume LeRoux, turned out to be domineering, bossy, and insolent—and equally ignorant of the Inuit language. Hardly an ideal traveling companion, particularly since they had to depend on the good will of the people with whom they intended to live.
Through a complex of circumstances, the two priests decided in October 1913 to leave their cabin on Great Bear Lake and travel unaccompanied several hundred miles northeast to the Arctic coast. They hoped to finally be able to live with the Inuit, learn their language, and begin converting them to Christianity. Father LeRoux, however, had alienated the trapper who had helped Father Rouvière the previous year, the priests had almost no wilderness survival skills, and they were heading north, away from their remaining food and security, at the beginning of winter. How they expected to survive is not clear.
Near the ocean, they had the good luck to encounter a band of Inuit who took them in, though of course they had no idea why the two men wore black robes or what they were saying. They also didn’t understand why the priests had almost no supplies or skills for surviving in the Arctic. Furthermore, they were mystified as to why they had no women with them, since women and their sewing skills would make the difference between staying warm and freezing to death over the winter.
Unfortunately, Le Roux’s manner severely alienated their hosts, and the priests suddenly found themselves in danger from a few of the Inuit whom LeRoux had angered. The fathers tried to flee and make it back to Great Bear Lake, despite the onset of winter. When a couple of the Inuit men joined them, LeRoux threatened them with his rifle and forced them to pull their sled like dogs. When LeRoux’s erratic, threatening anger with the Inuit got too severe, they suddenly killed both priests.
The second section of the book describes the drama of the Mounties getting their men. With only rumors swirling about the disappearance of the two priests, the Mounties chosen to investigate had to travel north into country where they had no experience. They found good translators, entered Inuit villages easily, readily gained their trust, and quickly located the two killers in widely separate villages. The Inuit killers immediately confessed their crimes, since of course everyone along the coast already knew the full story of what had happened. The Mounties arrested the men—Sergeant Preston come to life—and escorted them safely south to court trials, first in Edmonton and then in Calgary.
While the narratives of the murder and the capture are both gripping, the murder trial, a sensation in Alberta in 1917, is really the heart of the book. A reviewer certainly can’t reveal how the trials turn out—whether the juries found the men guilty of murder, not guilty because of their fear of Father LeRoux, or perhaps both. It is hard, while turning these pages, to remember that this is history, not fiction. The concluding chapters on the trial certainly capture the bewilderment of the two captives, the prejudices of the attorneys and the judge, and the biases of the media and popular opinion.
The author’s extensive research, effectively cited in his endnotes, underscores the veracity of his story. His description of Inuit culture—their ways of treating each other with respect, their high regards for women, and their feelings of horror about the murder that had been committed by two of their own—certainly reflects the ethnographic literature.
The book does have some weaknesses, however. Jenkins ignores the beauty of the Barren Lands north of the tree line in the opening pages when he over-emphasizes their bleakness to dramatize the dangers the priests were facing. At times he also speculates a bit too much about what may have motivated the different characters, and while he doubtless intended these thoughts to add to the drama, they have the opposite effect of weakening the authenticity of the narrative.
But these are minor quibbles. The author’s best writing, the effectiveness of the story, comes from his extensive research on the bizarre facts of the murder, the incredible chase by the Mounties, and the strange trials. While there are other, more scholarly, works on the Inuit, such as Jean Briggs’ Never in Anger, this book is an ideal summer vacation companion. The story is gripping but accurate, the characters are memorable and real, and the information about the Inuit and their contacts with Whites effectively weaves the whole narrative together.
Jenkins, McKay. Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913. New York: Random House, 2005