Review of the Day: The Snow Baby - The Arctic Childhood of Admiral Robert E. Peary's Daring Daughter
The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood of Admiral Robert E. Peary's Daring Daughter by Katherine Kirkpatrick. Holiday House. $16.95.
There are topics in this world that lend themselves to children’s non-fiction. Some of these topics are the usual cast of characters. The Titanic. Roanoke. The Molasses Flood of 1919. Other topics are a little less well-known but when you hear of them your jaw drops and you sputter something along the lines of, "How did no one think to write this book until now?" I would say that Katherine Kirkpatrick’s, “The Snow Baby” falls squarely into the latter category. Quick and fun, factual and fast-paced, the story of Admiral Peary’s daughter and her years in the frozen north makes for ideal non-fiction reading for kids.
She was born in the far north of Greenland in 1893 in a part of the world where the sun wasn’t to appear again for months. The daughter of the American Arctic explorer Lieutenant Robert E. Peary and his wife Josephine, Marie Ahnighito Peary spent her early years bouncing about the frozen north. Her father was determined to become the first man to reach the North Pole, and once in a while his family joined him part of the way on his expeditions. Marie’s life consisted of Inuit friends, snow as far as the eye can see, and small adventures on the ice. Author Katherine Kirkpatrick traces Marie’s numerous journeys between America and the Arctic, while also charting her father’s dream and the lives of everyone she touched.
Kirkpatrick cleverly limits the length of the story to a mere 50 pages or so. In doing so it’s as interesting to take note of what she does mention as what she doesn’t. For example, Matthew Henson was Peary’s personal aide in the Arctic. He was also an African-American and a true hero in his own right. And Kirkpatrick does eventually sort of mention to this fact by and by, but her focus is squarely on Marie. Mr. Henson’s skin color comes out in degrees more than anything else. She also is exceedingly careful with her facts. At no point does Kirkpatrick ever force her own opinion onto the reader. With an impartiality verging on the distanced, we learn of the two Inuit children Peary fathered when his wife was not around. We hear about how he took three meteorites the Inuits used for making knives and spear points with a quiet, “Peary saw no reason why he shouldn’t take the meteorites from Greenland. According to him, the Inuit no longer needed the iron meteorites because they could now trade for metal knife blades.” Be that as it may, as we read towards the end of the book the Inuit were “left without the trade goods they’d grown accustomed to,” after Peary’s departed in 1909. Kirkpatrick is sly. She is certainly allowing the child reader the chance to reach their own conclusions on these subjects without seemingly putting forth her own. Just the same, when she recounts how Peary hired Matthew Henson for his lectures, Kirkpatrick points out that Matt was hired, “to wear (and perspire in) thick furs.” True enough. You can give facts that damn a man without having actually write, “What an awful guy!,” on the page. This distance is necessary when discussing the Inuit too. We hear about how Marie’s friend Billy Bah was married at fourteen. Later we see a cheery twelve-year-old with her own baby. Some authors would condemn this practice. Others might try to explain it. Kirkpatrick, however, lays the facts before you and then takes a step back. However you choose to digest this information is up to you and you alone.
One of the first things that really struck me about this book was the number of photographs found here. I count at least sixty-three photographs in this book. Of these, a stunning twenty-eight are of Marie herself. Additionally, each page contains at least one photo, usually with more than one breaking up the text. Considering the time period with which we are dealing (late 19th/early 20th century) the fact that there even were this many photographs taken is impressive in and of itself. And that so many of them were taken of a single girl is just children’s book gold. Kirkpatrick does a remarkable job of showing you images of many of the characters mentioned in the book too. The sole exception, I guess, would have to be Marie’s childhood companion Koodlooktoo who only appears as a very small infant at the beginning of the book. And you can hardly blame the author for not being able to produce his face out of thin air.
And did I mention how exciting it was? One minute Marie’s sliding down a hill and the next thing you know she’s about to skim right over a cliff into the frozen waters below unless Koodlooktoo is able to save her. Ships are constantly getting iced in and trapped. People have to eat dogs. The book’s wild and the fact that it’s so well researched and cited just aids to the pleasure of reading it. Kirkpatrick is careful to include a Bibliography of First and Secondary Sources, a list of Source Notes, an Index, and a long listing of Picture Credits for anyone curious as to where she found all these great shots. Proper credit is given in the text itself to Ms. Peary’s own book, “The Snowbaby’s Own Story,” though I would hazard a guess that this book is the more honest of the two. Something tells me that Marie probably wouldn’t have mentioned her illegitimate half-brothers and sisters when discussing her much beloved (and absent) father.
If I were placed in charge of marketing this book, you know the first thing I would have mentioned in the bookflap/press releases/what-have-you would be the fact that its subject (deep breath), Marie Ahnighito Peary Stafford Kuhne, was a children’s author in her own right. You may have stumbled on her Little Tooktoo stories at some point in your travels. In any case, with its short length and young subject, “The Snow Baby” might pair very well with other non-fiction titles like, “The Cat With the Yellow Star” by Susan Goldman Rubin. And for those people wishing to do a unit on polar exploration, you might want to consider also taking a look at, “Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson,” by Delores Johnson. All in all, consider this a really spectacular non-fiction choice for any given year. A non-fiction read that comes across as a true pleasure.
Notes on the Cover: Well, it looks cool. And an adorable tiny child wrapped in furs is hard to beat. Just the same, there’s a picture of Marie, one of the very first in the book, where she’s seven and wearing warm Inuit clothing. One foot is placed in front of the other, and she looks (not to put too fine a point on it) like a badass. I did seriously appreciate that the images of snowflakes that appear on the cover are from W.A. Bentley. Remember the Caldecott Award winning picture book “Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin? That guy’s photographs are nicely reproduced here as blue on white rather than white on black. It’s very nicely done. And, to be honest, adorable babies wrapped in fur are going to sell a lot more books to parents, teachers, and librarians than badass seven-year-olds who look like they could take down a walrus if you asked them to.
Note: Do not be led astray by the incorrect publication date given by Amazon.com. According to WorldCat and the book’s very publication page, this title came out in 2007 rather than November of 2006. You are safe in including it in your 2007 best book lists (hint hint) as it officially came out in January.
Author’s Note from Her Website:
"While I was working on The Snow Baby, I greatly enjoyed touring the Peary family’s home on Eagle Island. To view some of my photographs from that trip, click on Eagle Island Scrapbook. To plan your own visit to the house, see Peary’s Eagle Island. And to learn more about Robert E. Peary, please visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.Previously Reviewed By: MadChatter.
Researchers interested in the published writings and personal papers of Marie Stafford Peary Kuhne and Josephine Diebitsch Peary, may view them by appointment at the Maine Women Writers Collection."