Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.


  1. It is difficult to say that I personally enjoyed many of the stories in “A Kayak Full of Ghosts,” but most are certainly entertaining. Entertainment seems to be the major purpose, though. Many of these stories are vulgar and lack what we as a western society have been accustomed to know to be a useful moral. After reading several stories for the first time, I found myself trying to find the reason they were told, knowing that most folk stories told to American children have morals. However, these stories are very blunt and if there are reasons for them being told other than entertainment, it seems to be about punishments or warnings. For example, the story entitled “The Ghost that Ate Children” was about a child that was eaten by a ghost because his father beat his mother and the mother took the child and ran away. The story entitled “Namik” was about a man who was transformed into lichen because he went hunting when there were shooting stars. This could be interpreted as a warning because hunting is important not only for food but for the culture, and perhaps shooting stars signify a spiritual occasion. One story I enjoyed, even though it seems cynical, is entitled “Spare my Life.” This story is about a fly who landed on a boy’s head, but after exclaiming that he was a grandfather, the boy did not squish the fly. The fly was extremely grateful and thought highly of mankind. However, as the fly was heading home, he landed on another man who squished him immediately. The story ends with “So much for fond thoughts of mankind.” Again, although not the happiest story, this one seems to have a useful moral about trust.

    -Lee DeOrsey

  2. As I read through the stories in “A Kayak full of Ghosts” I become more astonished at how blunt and farfetched these stories are. Most of these stories are little vulgar, talk about abuse, and some end up in death or murder. In the Story ‘The Ghost that Ate Children’ a women was constantly beaten by her husband for any little thing she did or even didn’t do just because he felt like it. She ends up running away with her child and when she does a ghost kills and eats the child. The women returns home to her husband and he is not upset with her, in fact he never beats her again. For myself I think these stories are interesting and they catch my attention immediately, but I feel empty at the end of most because they do not represent a happy ending like most other stories do. Foolishly, I keep reading through more and more stories thinking about how it’s going to end of what sort of meaning it has, but I’m left with an unsatisfiable feeling.

    -Nicole Fraser

  3. While reading the stories in a Kayak full of ghost, it was definitely a unique type of reading. There were some tales I chose not to read because of the content of the story. But like many of peers, one of the most interesting one to me was "The Ghost that Ate Children". I picked this one because when the wife did return to the husband and the husband essentially learned to not beat the wife anymore even after the horrific death of their children which some could interpret in the reading was the wife's fault because she took them away. The ending of this story had the most meaning out of most of the tales in the book. The husband decided not to beat the wife anymore. It leaves it open for many different interpretations on why he decided to not beat her anymore. Considering most of the endings in the the tales really didn't have many meanings or things that made you think at the end of them. But with the end of this story it made you think why did the father decide to not beat his wife, what made his stop.

    -Kevin McKenzie

  4. While reading through the stories of Kayak Full of Ghost two words came to mind: bizarre and vulgar. I just kept wondering to myself how these stories even came about and what would possess someone to even want to hear/read them. Besides this I found two things very interesting; one ow the book is separated into categories (one category is children, I do not think the stories are kid appropriate) and two the quote directly after the table of contents (we often look for a meaning in stories, and the quote, in my opinion, explains that each story in the book focuses on suffering because this is the only true way to develop wisdom).
    One story I enjoyed reading was “What is the Earth” because we often want the answers to things very quickly or the easy way. Sometimes even, a question cannot really be answered, we simply just have to accept what is instead of spending a ‘lifetime’ searching for the ‘true’ answer. I definitely think that the stories under the category ‘Death and Old Age’ offer a lot of wisdom and insight to life.
    Overall, it was an interesting read that provided shock and a few laughs.
    Thank you!
    - Ashley R. Nieves

  5. As it was mentioned previously, these stories were shockingly vulgar, but definitely interesting to read. I actually had to put the book down and walk away for a few hours before finishing the entire book, and I also had my fiance read a few, because I simply could not believe what I read in a few of the stories. Overall, though, I thought there were a few stories that were funny, and I cannot see myself forgetting this book, or a few of the stories from this book, such the woman marrying her dog or the boy filling up his grandpaƛ butt-hole with rocks. I thought the taboo about menstruating women not eating was kind of weird but I´m sure there was a purpose behind it somewhere in their history, which I will probably research sometime this week in my spare time.

    - Chelsea DeSchepper

  6. I read several of these stories and found them somewhat disturbing. Although the inuit do not share the same culture as we do, it was difficult to find a place where stories like these would be appropriate. I felt like the some of the stories were written while on hunting trips while being lonely and away from the families, or possibly stories the "guys" would tell on hunting trips. Although I was unable to relate to any of the stories, it is interesting to see what other cultures may consider leisure entertainment.

  7. While “A Kayak full of Ghosts”, I was curious on what different stories were going to be told. Once I began to read a little of the book, it was clear to me that it was not what I was excepting at all. An example of this was the “Sun and Moon” excerpt on page 21 which took me totally by surprise. When I read the title, I figured it would be comparing night and day but that was definitely not the case. The part of the short story where the sun decided to cut up her breast and mix it with urine and blood was something I was very surprised by. Over all, I found this book to be very interesting and the turn of events in the stories kept me wanting to read more. I would warn people though, that this is not your typical book to read before heading to bed.

    Jorge Perez

    1. The stories in "A Kayak Full of Ghosts" came as a full surprise and very disturbing to me. This was the first time I have ever read this book. I agree that the "Sun and Moon" was definitely one of the most disturbing stories in this book and it took me by surprise as well. Not only was the title very deceiving, but the words in the story definitely did not match the title. As the sun and moon do not relate to any of what the story was telling about them. Overall, this book was very surprising, interesting and definitely will make your stomach turn in awe. Although, that is my opinion on this book, I would still recommend this book to people who are looking for an exciting and interesting book to read with a warning.
      -Miranda Jacavone

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  9. These stories are fascinating! The one that was the most haunting and strange was The Birth of Fog (24-25). I think it is a great risk that the leader figure, an angakok takes to investigate the disappearance of dead bodies, and goes to the extreme of burying himself alive. What if the spirit was not going after his body on that specific night; he would have died. Also, the character’s description of the family as “the spirit had a wife and three children, all of whom were enormously fat” (24) leads to the understanding that they may have an insatiable hunger. Also, the descriptors “enormously fat” reminds me of the character from the Miyazaki movie, Spirited Away, specifically No face who arrives at the bath house and eats everything until he is big and fat. This was a horrifying scene. However, my interpretation of this Inuit story is that of caring for one’s loved ones. The spirit is a father that is trying to feed his family, which is understandable. However, the angakok has the responsibility to keep his people safe. These are conflicting viewpoints and each person is trying to do right by their loves ones. These stories are interesting and some are disturbing, but they have different perspectives and lessons.
    Side Note: I found it interesting that the spirit said “that’s rubbish,” which is odd a word to use because it comes from late Middle English.

    by Vanessa Villon

  10. Reading through this book, I realized some of these stories are different and unusual. Nonetheless, I can see these stories trying to make somewhat of a point or a saying we perhaps heard before. The short story of "The Woman of the Sea" was bizarre. I felt that it tried to make a argument that people miss you more when you're gone. The "Sun and Moon" story was simple, however I liked what it referenced: first comes the sun then comes the moon. I also liked the quote in the beginning of the book, " All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of men, in the great solitudes; and it can only be attained through suffering. suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind of man to that which is hidden from his fellows." I like this quote because I like to think that struggle builds character in people.

    Alan Guzman