In John Minichillo’s debut novel The Snow Whale (July 30), office worker and textbook suburban white guy John Jacobs discovers, through the help of a DNA test, that his heritage is more exotic than he’d ever imagined: he’s part Eskimo. Suddenly filled with pride and purpose, Jacobs resolves to forsake his white picket fence for the snowy expanses of Alaska and join “his people” in their annual whale hunt. Rather than listening to us blather on about what ensues, see for yourself in this delicious excerpt we couldn’t resist sharing.
At work Jacobs found the website of a tribal council in Alaska but decided an e-mail introduction from his work address would get mistaken as spam. So he went down into the basement of the UniqCorps offices, where one of the janitors opened a storage room and he took out a typewriter. It was an IBM Selectric, a very nice machine, still functioning, though the ink had dried and he had to find a box of replacement ribbons. The thing was cumbersome and heavy, but he carried it onto the elevator and up to his cubicle.
“Feeling nostalgic?” someone said to him in the elevator, and all Jacobs could think to say was “Yes.”
The typewriter clattered off a letter to the tribal council. He attracted attention to himself on the floor, but Eskimos wouldn’t be impressed by laser printing, and his handwriting was too loose and flow-y to be taken seriously. The IBM stamped his intention over the plain white surface of paper like footprints in an expanse of snow. Until he made a typo and began again. He repeated the letter, and it got better each time. Then he stopped, took the bottle of Wite-Out, and proceeded to Wite-Out rows of sentences. He stared into the drying white mass that reminded him of snow, so much Wite-Out the IBM’s letter golfball became smudged with white glops when he typed again.
Jacobs knew what he wanted to say, but not how to get started. His tribe might not see things from his point of view. They might reject him. He was embarrassed because he couldn’t talk to his people in his own tongue, and he knew nothing of them except what he’d seen on the nature shows. He’d been robbed of his culture and his language. By the end of the day, the carpet around his desk was crowded with paper wads and he hadn’t made or answered a single call. But before he went home, and before the typewriter ribbon ran out, he’d written a letter he was confident he could send, and that they couldn’t deny.
Enclosed is a DNA test that proves my identity as one of our people. Unfortunately, I was born and raised a white man and that’s all I have known my entire life. I have also known an unspoken longing, a feeling that my surroundings weren’t real, and the notion that something very important had been taken from me. I’m as oppressed and kept down as our people were historically, but I have discovered my secret identity, and my day of liberation has come.
I intend to meet with you in person, and to join the whale hunt. While I have not, as yet, learned the significance of the whale hunt for our people, for me it will represent the end of the lie that I have lived and a rejection of the plastic culture that has stood as a cheap substitute for our centuries-old traditions and our language.
I am a man of humble means, but I will do anything I can to prepare appropriately. If there are camping supplies you might recommend, we have an REI where a knowledgeable staff will equip me. I have done Internet research, and there are several companies making high-quality products for subzero temperatures. Some of the people who work at REI have been ice climbing. That’s considered a sport now, and they can give me pointers. I was thinking I would need a reliable sleeping bag, a heavy winter coat, and some topnotch boots. They make heated socks that you put batteries in, and I’ve seen thermal insulate that is lightweight and
made of the same materials astronauts use.
In addition, if there are any products you have had difficulty obtaining that you would like me to bring, I would be more than happy to arrive with a care package. For example, I have a neighbor with cousins in Europe, and he tells me they can’t get peanut butter. Every few years when he visits he takes a couple of jars, and they’ve become fond of the stuff. So if there’s anything you would like me to pack: coffee, breakfast cereal, condoms, or anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.
As for my accommodations, I hope you can put me up somewhere. If our people are living on a reservation, I will apply for my own habitation. However, I expect this will take time, and I think I would really enjoy sleeping in an igloo. If you know of any families that might put me up, I am polite, generally quiet, and I can pull my weight. I would keep to my own corner of the igloo.
If there are any good books or documentaries that you can recommend that would help me learn about our culture, I would appreciate a list of titles, and I will read them studiously and with pride. Although I am ignorant of our language, Spanish was my best subject in high school, so I feel I could learn quickly. Likewise, if there is an Eskimo-Aleut to English-language dictionary that you could recommend, I will be sure to obtain a copy before I arrive.
I am booking a flight for the first week in April, which should be two weeks before the whales run. I look forward to meeting my fellow Inuit, making preparations, and joining you in this festive time.
Your lost cousin,
Jacobs hoped a response from the tribe would arrive in time to ease his mind. He planned on going whether the reply came or not. He had given them his home phone number, his work number, and his e-mail address. He imagined them writing back in the same fashion, using an
obsolete typewriter, and the most difficult thing would be for him to go through the motions at the office while he waited. He had put in for vacation time, but he thought of his trip as one-way—leaving for good—because he didn’t see how he could come back once he’d been whaling. He couldn’t turn back into his old self as Mike Schmidt had done. He didn’t want to be like Mike Schmidt, or like his old self, or like anyone that he knew. He wanted to be his real and better self, the noble Eskimo hunter.
He was careful not to talk to anyone about his trip, and when coworkers hinted Jacobs had been acting strange, he said, simply, “Headaches. From the fluorescent lights. And the computer screens.”
Mike Schmidt had quickly cured himself of his Mongolian obsession by going there, but the people in the office wouldn’t let him forget. They had started calling Mike “The Mighty Khan,” and it had stuck and made him miserable. Although Jacobs despised the thought of going back to whom he’d been, or even who he was now, he at least wanted that option. More than anything he didn’t want to be stuck in his job forever. But no one noticed him at least, and that was a luxury he wanted to be able to fall back into. If they started calling him Nanook at work he didn’t know how he would cope. He had kept everything about his newfound identity secret, especially from Mike Schmidt, who longed for an ally.
An e-mail was waiting for Jacobs a few days later when he arrived at work in the morning. He was surprised to see it but also delighted, because an e-mail meant he could reply immediately:
Dear Mr. Jacobs:
In the same way that the US government and Greenpeace cannot deny us our culture, we cannot deny you yours. The news of your coming brings us trepidation, however. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but also, please don’t come. We are a solitary and stoic people. There are no families who will take you in. We would have an obligation to treat you as an orphan and to ensure your survival, but we recommend against joining the whale hunt. It is an endeavor that is extremely dangerous, our boats are small, and there are limited seats. Men will take their sons only after years of preparation. As you aren’t anyone’s son, and you don’t have any experience, no one would want you in their umiaq. You would be a liability and a deadweight. We wish you well as an Inuk, but if you are feeling suicidal please don’t persist in taking any of us with you.
As for books, I recommend Moby-Dick by one Herman Melville, because you are trying to live some kind of fiction. All cultural studies, language dictionaries, and documentaries take the dominant white viewpoint. They see us as a subject, not a people, and we cannot recommend that you participate in that kind of racist objectification of the Inuit. Our ways aren’t so much learned as lived. Our language isn’t easily translated. And our people will always see you as a foreigner. It’s nothing personal, Mr. Jacobs; I am only being honest.
Yes, the whale hunt is central to us as a people, and had you not somehow found yourself lost, we would welcome you. We recognize that this is not your fault. Some things aren’t easily explained, but you also can’t change the way you are. Surely, your life is not as empty as you make it out to be. You have peanut butter and you can shop at REI. You have easy access to coffee and condoms. You can have anything. We recommend that you enjoy your white American lifestyle to the fullest, and we would like to make your acquaintance should you choose to visit during the summer season—for a vacation—but please don’t persist in your idea of going on the whale hunt.
Yuq Junnaq, tribal representative and acting chief.
Despite tribal representative Yuq Junnaq’s foreboding tone and the suggestion that dangers and distances outweighed soul-searching, what Jacobs got from the e-mail was an affirmation that if he wanted to go on the hunt, they wouldn’t be able to stop him. He was being invited as a tourist, which is what ruined Mike Schmidt’s odyssey. Jacobs would force himself on them and they couldn’t deny him. He was an Inuk and he shared tribal rights. They might not like it, but he was one of them and he was going on the hunt.
Order your own copy of The Snow Whale from our online store.
About the Author
John Minichillo lives in Nashville with his wife and son. This is his first novel. Find out more about John and The Snow Whale at thesnowwhale.com. And learn more about John’s inspiration in our exclusive author interview.