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Kabloona is a true story of a journey into the North. This extraordinary classic has been variously acclaimed as one of the great books of adventure, travel, anthropology, and spiritual awakening. In the summer of 1938, the Frenchman Gontran de Poncins traveled beyond the "Barren Lands" north of the Arctic Circle to Kind William Island, an island of ten thousand square miles. The entire population of the island consisted of twenty-five Eskimos, their primitive lives untouched by the civilization of the white man. For fifteen months Gontran de Poncins lived among the Inuit people of the Arctic. He is at first appalled by their way of life: eating rotten raw fish, sleeping with each others' wives, ignoring schedules, and helping themselves to his possessions. But as de Poncins's odyssey continues, he is transformed from Kabloona, The White Man, an uncomprehending outsider, to someone who finds himself living, for a few short months, as Inuk: a man, preeminently.

339 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1941

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About the author

Gontran De Poncins

27 books5 followers
Jean-Pierre Gontran de Montaigne, vicomte de Poncins, who used the nom-de-plume "Gontran De Poncins", was a French writer. He was the direct lineal descendant of a much more famous French writer- Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 109 reviews
Profile Image for Ian.
725 reviews65 followers
January 17, 2021
This book is about a journey made in 1938 to the far north of Canada, where the author, a Frenchman, lived for more than a year with nomadic Inuit, at the time referred to as Eskimos. Since that word is used in the book, I use it below interchangeably with “Inuit”. I listened to the audiobook version which was superbly narrated. However, I understand the print version contains numerous sketches by Poncins, as well as black and white photos, so it was a shame to miss those.

I would have given this book 5 stars, but for the fact that Poncins was a man of his time who displayed the typical attitudes of a European of the era, especially at the beginning of the book. He considered the Eskimos had “primitive minds” and were “childlike”, although he was reflective enough to know that in turn the Eskimos considered the whites to be childlike. I realise that in 1938 these views were held as a matter of course, but they did annoy me a bit when they appeared in the text.

Poncins was no pampered city boy, having previously travelled to several of the most remote and exotic locations in the world. With the nomadic Inuit though, he had to adjust to a lifestyle that was the most physically arduous on Earth. There is some vivid descriptive writing. One passage in particular described an incident when Poncins was inside an igloo with 3 other Eskimos, eating raw seal meat to the flickering light of a seal oil lamp, which threw hugely magnified shadows of the men onto the interior walls of the igloo. I’ll spare the reader the grotesque details, but Poncins commented that the image subsequently appeared to him whenever anyone brought up the subject of prehistoric man.

At the core of this book though, is how Poncins adapted mentally to living amongst the nomadic Inuit. He explains it is about “two different mentalities, the Eskimo and the European”, and how, over time, his European mentality became partly changed to an Eskimo one. The Inuit lived in a sort of primitive communism, in which everything was shared amongst the members of a group (including spouses). To begin with Poncins resented how the Eskimos would help themselves to his “grub”, for which he had drawn up a careful ration schedule, and his feelings led to verbal clashes with his travelling companions. Other arguments arose over the time taken on journeys. Poncins always wanted to know how long a journey would take and how far they had to go, an attitude that baffled the Inuit.

Most of time the author was in the Arctic he lived on King William Island, about 5,000 sq m in area, inhabited at the time by about 25 Inuit and a single white man who ran a trading post at Gjoa Haven. He eventually makes a journey to another community at Pelly Bay (today called Kugaaruk) where he says the Inuit were less influenced by the white man than they were on “King”. It was here that Poncins learned to properly adapt. He explains for example, that no nomadic Eskimo would ever have said “I had a good seal hunting season”, but instead think “We had a good seal hunting season.” Poncins learned to think not of “his” food or “his” tea but instead of “our” food and “our” tea. He ceased counting the days and ceased being critical of the Inuit. The end result was that he experienced, in his own words, the warmest human companionship of his life.

There’s so much more I could say about this book, but my review would go on for ever. It’s an absolutely fascinating account, both of Poncins’ own journey, in the wider sense of the word, and as a portrait of the last days of an ancient hunter-gatherer culture
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
November 26, 2018
This is a fascinating and moving account of a Frenchman who was sickened by modern life and, seeking to experience a primitive, uncorrupted mode of existence, went to live among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic for a year. He traveled by boat and dogsled in the Spring of 1938 to King William Island, a land mass of about 5,000 sq. mi. (the size of Connecticut) populated by a few dozen Inuit and two white men, one who ran a government trading post and the other a missionary priest at a remote village. The introduction by the author’s editor and English translator explains how he ended up there:

Poncins went forth on a quest for peace, for serenity, for a community of men—somewhere, anymore—whose roots were in something that was eternal, something that was not self-centered, savagely competitive and destructive of happiness. First he tried Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, sailing in the south Seas. Then he went to ancient civilizations, to China, India. In St. Jerome’s day he would have gone in a cenoby in the Egyptian desert; in our time, it turned out he could only go to the Eskimos. And there he found, at Pelly Bay, what he was looking for.

His paid guide impressed him with amazing skills in handling his dogs, navigating the vast barren lands without a compass (useless so near the Magnetic Pole), and building them an igloo shelter in a couple of hours. But it was so hard for Poncins to get used to the filth of nomadic life, the lack of privacy in the crowded space of the igloo, and storage of dead seals and fish they lived on. He tried hard to learn their language and follow their practices, but the communal frenzy of raw meat dinners was hard for him to overcome his reaction of disgust:

Here, in this igloo, all that I had seen before was now surpassed. There were three men, and there must have been fifty pounds of meat. The three men attacked the meat with the rumblings and growlings of animals warning their kind away from their private prey. They ground their teeth and their jaws cracked as they ate, and they belched …with long cavernous fatty belchings as of brutes drowned in contentment. …And, like beasts, they picked up chunks and flung them down almost instantly down again in order to put their teeth into other and perhaps more succulent bits.
…I can still see Tutiak, in a moment of respite, licking the palms of his hands, then sucking each of his fingers, and finally scraping between the fingers with his snow-knife, slowly, with that concentrated air of a thoughtful animal … .

Still, Poncins had a generous attitude:
The cold was a problem, but a very much more difficult problem was the Eskimo mentality. There was no getting on with the Eskimo except on his own terms. ... The Eskimo was not in not in my eyes “an interesting species” nor was I, in my own mind, a diligent “scientist.” The stake was bigger than that. I sought to live the Eskimo life, not to measure it with instruments of precision.

Despite these people living with Stone Age technology, they impressed Poncins immensely with their joy of living and successful adaption to the seasons:
The Eskimo, preeminently a nomad and sea-hunter, is driven by the need to feed his family from point to point round an irregular circle, and it is the revolution of the seasons that directs his march. When the run of Arctic salmon in the river is over, he goes down to the lakes to jig through the ice. Meanwhile, he has also begun to trap the white fox. As winter advances, as the ice thickens too deep for jigging … the Eskimo is forced to move on, for his family and dogs consume about fifty pounds of food a day, an average terribly hard to maintain. The next curve on his circle is sealing and polar-bear hunting on the frozen sea. Then with the spring the caribou pass through on their way north; the great season of visiting begins; and in the autumn the river fish return. Thus the Eskimo is constantly on the march, driven by hunger through a cycle of peregrination whose signal characteristic and whose highest reward is not possession, nor leisure, but a full belly.
The cycle has its grandeur. Nowhere in the world have I known the seasons to speak so commandingly, ordain so precisely and inescapably what man must do to survive. And yet this imperious voice, if I am to judge by the cheerfulness with which the Eskimos listen to it, the serenity with which they set about obeying it, is full of solitude, too. The Eskimos do not look upon their country as a harsh land, and among the variety of reasons for this I should put first the reason that it is their own, their unchallenged kingdom.

Over the course of the year, Poncins was able to experience each of these activities. Some months of the perpetual night of winter was spent living at the trading post, where a fire, furniture, and canned goods were like a luxury to him. But when the natives came in to trade their fox furs in exchange for household goods, they didn’t seem to truly enjoy sitting on chairs for civilized tea and biscuits:

But look at them! They are dull, sullen, miserable. Physically, they seem shrunken, their personalities diminished and extinguished. Instead of laughing, they brood; and you see them come in, take their seats on the bench and remain like sleepwalkers, expressionless and spiritless … But open wide the door, fling them into the blizzard, and they come to. They wake up suddenly; they whistle; their women scurry about, their children crack the triumphant whip, their dogs bark like mad: an impression of joy, of life, fills the environs of the Post.

Try as he might, Poncins had difficulties accommodating to certain patterns of behavior. Much of his supplies would routinely be pilfered, leading him to get churlish and mistrustful. Only later did he come to appreciate the custom of sharing all food and resources with the group as a key social adaptation for survival. Their practice of casual wife-swapping was another social behavior hard for him to get used to. Though initiated by the husband, he saw that the women were really behind such a decision (as with most significant choices of the family). But if the visiting man or the wife sought infidelity in secret, then an ugly jealousy could emerge. This was one of the situations that could lead to murder in this community. Another social practice that particularly disturbed Poncins was that of abandoning the elderly infirm to the elements and death. Eventually he came to appreciate how long they did care for the infirm who had a reasonable quality of life and that the elders accepted their end by this method.

Periodically, Poncins sounds quite racist, such as when he compares the natives to children or monkeys. Though no linguist or anthropologist, he feels free to make the following outrageous judgment:
There is no learning to know the Eskimo through an exchange of ideas. Properly speaking, the Eskimo does not think at all. He has no capacity for generalization. He cannot explain himself to you nor can he explain his people.

Only later when he reached a community called Pella Bay at the end of a 1,500 mile trip did he come to understand that the first peoples he lived with were speaking a pidgin form of Intuit so he could understand better. They also were poorer and lived a more marginal existence compared to Pella Bay, where better access to seals made for more stability and larger and more permanent igloos with spaces for privacy and communal meals. A priest who lived among them in primitive conditions helped him understand more about their language and modes of thinking:

If you knew what condensation there is in their language! …Their phrases are as sober as their faces. A gleam in an Eskimo’s eye tells you more than a half dozen of our sentences concerning desire, repugnance, or other emotion. Each Eskimo word is like that gleam: it suggests at once what has happened and what is to come, and it contains that touch of the unexpressed which makes the people so mysterious and attractive.
Their shades of expression are infinite. …We are so habituated to our simple yes and no that we ignore the existence of a scale of gradations between affirmation and negation.

In his view, these were the admirable Edenic people he had sought, not corrupted by white civilization:
What I was seeing here, few men had seen, and it was now to be seen almost nowhere else—a social existence as in olden days, a degree of prosperity and well-being contrasting markedly with the pseudo-civilized life of the western Eskimo and the pitiful, stunted, whining life of the King William clan with its wretched poverty, its tents made of coal-sacks, its snuffling, lackluster, and characterless men clad in rags; that life like a dulled and smutted painting with only here and there a gleam to speak of what it had once been.

If he had learned their language better he would have been able to appreciate their stories, songs, and mythology better. In a wonderful book about the part-Dane, part-Inuit explorer Rasmussen, White Eskimo, I was able to tap more into those aspects from accounts of his long trip visiting Arctic peoples from Greenland all the way west to the Bering Sea.

On the long trip back to civilization, Poncins was able to work and live with his guides in perfect harmony without needing speech and to reflect on how his experience with them enriched his spirit:

Together we spend hours like this reading in the great Book of Silence. He learnt its lessons in childhood; I have come from afar to spell them out with extreme difficulty. They have taught me, above all, to discard things—haste, worry, rebelliousness, selfishness. It has taken me a year to learn these lessons, and I see suddenly that my year in the north has not been, as I thought it, a year of the conquest of the elements, but of conquest of myself. And because of the peculiarity of my conquest, the Arctic is for me no longer a source of suffering but of joy. It is the crucible in which, slowly and patiently, the dross of my nature has to some extent been melted away. In this Arctic have I found my peace, the peace I was never able to find Outside ..this sense of the brotherhood of man.

This account and Rasmussen's are a rare window into the life of the Intuit before contact with the white man had changed them very much from their Stone Age predecessors. It satisfied my need to ponder what humans can be like when fully attuned to their environment and what levels of civilization are required for the appearance of organized warfare and institutions like slavery. Of course, speculation along those lines is rife with presumptions and false conclusions. I appreciated the careful consideration of the origins of various forms of aggressive human behavior in the recent masterful book by the primatologist Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans and their Best and Worst.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
512 reviews712 followers
August 21, 2015
Only rarely do I come upon a book that I cannot imagine anyone disliking. This is such a book.

In 1938, Gontran De Poncins, a Frenchman, decided to live with the Eskimos for more than a year. Afterwards, he wrote this amazing true story of his travels. The action starts almost from page one. You're plunged into story after story, each one more unbelievable than the last. You learn about basic Eskimo life, their strange customs and norms, their fear of commitment, seal hunting, igloo building, wild springtime orgies, casual murder and wife swapping. All woven into a continuous and exciting narrative of survival, exploration and self discovery. It is equal part anthropology, travel writing, memoir, comic entertainment, and spiritual meditation.

What's more, our narrator is an interesting guy, a very good writer, and slightly unreliable. You never get his backstory, but I found myself wondering more than once: Who is this guy and why is he here? Throughout the book he makes incredibly un-PC (and ultimately hilarious) remarks like "Properly speaking, the Eskimo does not think at all." He portrays the Eskimos as barbarians, disgusting, dimwitted, capable of incredible laziness, unfeeling, communist rat bastards, yet he turns around and praises them often for their physical grace, zen-like composure, and miraculous zeal for life in unbearably harsh conditions. He also portrays himself as impatient, silly, and hindered by Western possessions and need for security and definite answers. It soon becomes evident that the Eskimo is only a brute because he is an entirely other being than the white man, and indeed he makes an awful white man.

But as the book nears the end, Gontran himself slowly comes around to becoming an Inuit in spirit, a "man, pre-eminently". And the whole section where he writes about the calmness and joy at his heart when he finally gave in to the Eskimo way of life is incredibly moving. It makes me think of that Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience book I read last year, and how true some of what it said about happiness was. Here are a people who cannot think of much else other than the landscape and the next meal most of the time, because it takes all their energy to basically stay alive. And yet they seem like the happiest people on earth. They live a leisurely un-rushed communal life and take things in stride. There is no neurosis, everything is direct, uncomplicated. They live completely in the moment.

Of course, this is probably a bit romanticized, and some of the stories are probably embellishments of the truth (in fact, I would argue that it is precisely the flawed un-objective quality of this account that makes it so great). Still, something of the general spirit of these people comes through.

Also: if you liked the documentary Nanook of the North, you definitely will love this. A lot of the same stuff is covered here, except in more detail, and a lot of intriguing customs and ways of being are completely absent from the movie. If you haven't seen that movie, I highly recommend it as well.
Profile Image for Sarah B.
836 reviews16 followers
March 22, 2021
When I first started reading this I had no idea at first it was a memoir of the author's actual experience living with the Eskimo of King William Land and Pelly Bay. And once I started reading I found this book to be very interesting indeed. This is not a quick, fun read. It's packed full of information. And I believe some of it can be very useful in many different ways to different people. He mentions weather, snowfall, thickness of ice, etc. It would be great to compare this information to today's.

The author has apparently met different groups of people from around the world and yet he found the Eskimo of King William Land to be different than anyone he had met before. The book describes in great detail their behavior, how they live and he also tried to figure out how they think based on what they did in various situations. But he is honest and admits when he doesn't understand them. Still he does his best.

Some of the habits of the Eskimo in here may be shocking or disturbing. They are not very neat or clean. Or they weren't in the year 1938. The Eskimo in this book are the ones that live in igloos and travel by dog sled.

One thing I find fascinating is how they lived and stayed warm by eating frozen fish! They are obviously on an almost carnivore diet, although they did enjoy stuff like tea or bags of flour, but they mostly lived on frozen fish. I think the things they baked with the flour was like a treat. But how do you chew frozen meat or fish? He does state they have very strong teeth at the beginning of the book. And they actually stay warmer eating frozen fish than they would eating stuff like rice... So fascinating! You would think eating frozen stuff would make you cold!

Another thing I found fascinating was what he was told by the man he met on Pelly Bay. He had offered him some cheese and the man had replied he wouldn't be able to digest that anymore. This man wasn't an eskimo but someone who had moved there. It makes me wonder why he (a former european) wasn't able to digest cheese anymore yet the Eskimo could digest modern things like flour and tea that were brought in for them on the rare plane? I'm sure their ancestors didn't grow up eating wheat flour or drinking tea..so I find it both puzzling and fascinating, especially since I have lots of food related problems.

This is quite the little real adventure story. The author sees and experiences a lot while he's there from October to the following April. Most of the days are -50 F and yes, he's out in that weather. There are a few scary scenes as well.

This book includes all sorts of things, including several murders. Of course they look at things very differently.

It's also amazing that I read an 80 year old paperback book! I like the cover image too. In fact it's what had attracted me to the book in the first place.
Profile Image for Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly.
755 reviews339 followers
September 23, 2013
Emir Never "discovered" this book. He sent me an sms one afternoon, copy in his hand inside a Booksale branch, asking me if I have read "Kabloona" by Gontran de Poncins. I replied no, and pointed out that both the title and name of the author sound strange. But there was wifi in the place I was at that time so I checked its rating here at goodreads and was surprised that a book with its author both of which I've never heard of before could have an average rating of 4.21 in 231 ratings and 40 reviews. So I texted back: "Buy!" The price: P25.00--roughly about half a dollar.

That was just the start of the series of amazing delights I got from this weird, completely discombobulating discovery. Emir Never, who takes eons to finish a book and sometimes even NEVER finishes them, read this in less than a week's time. Ready to turn it over to me we had lunch one friday afternoon and there he couldn't seem to concentrate on his katsu at Yabu blabbering about this book, written by a seemingly half-crazed French which began with a whimsical trip upon the urgings of maybe a photo he had seen or a conversation he had heard (he couldn't remember anymore), a trip where he almost died, writing/sketching/taking pictures of what he saw, heard, felt and learned. He did not just travel to a place and see men and women in their unique culture, He travelled back in time, back to the Stone Age, lived it, understood it, loved it, and gifted us with this book so we might also learn, and wonder, and look at ourselves in a completely different light.

A book conceived by fate, which I finished in record two days, the first book which made me whisper "thank you," feeling the burden of a tremendous debt of gratitude not to Emir Never but to its author and his literary collaborator, Messrs. Gontran de Poncins and Lewis Galantiere.
Profile Image for Luke Marsden.
Author 4 books33 followers
September 16, 2015
Gontran de Poncins arrives in King William Land, in the Canadian high arctic, as an anthropologist who appears bent on describing the peoples he encounters there in terms of the differences between them and those where he comes from. Even the title of the book - Kabloona ("White Man", in the language of the Netsilik) reflects this perspective. In the first part, he seems agitated and is quite hasty to resort to stereotype. Much of what he perceives as adverse differences between the Netsilik natives with whom he lives and himself, a Kabloona, would be attributable to any people living the way of life they lead: extremely hard, in one of the coldest and bleakest environments on Earth, in what a westerner would describe as extreme poverty, and with no formally structured education... Ironically, as a result of de Poncins' own preconceptions, the early sections of the book become as much an anthropological study of an early 20th century French anthropologist as they are of the Netsilik people of King William Land.

However, I get the impression that the book was written from the notebooks he kept while he was there, and he seems to write in a voice that is faithful to the mood he felt in the moment he describes. So, as it progresses, there is a tangible mellowing in his thoughts, and in the tone of his narration, as he becomes more accepted, and acquiesces to the ways of those he is among. This makes his earlier moments of uptightness and disdain for them appear as manifestations of his own shortcomings - the impatience, helplessness and suppressed desperation he felt upon first arriving in this place. The reading becomes far more relaxed at this point. That the Inuit succeed in the circumstances he describes is miraculous, and the enormous pride they feel in their way of life, and the extreme care and attention to detail with which they must live in order to survive, are conveyed well. When the physical surroundings are described they are hard to imagine, such is their other-worldliness: perpetual night, hunting seal by moonlight, haunting ice-scapes, weeks spent travelling by dog sled through vast emptiness, eating what is caught along the way, hastily erecting igloos in blizzards that it seems that nobody could survive... these are all part of normality.

He spends time with three separate groups of Inuit, amongst whom are scattered a handful of other westerners - trappers, missionaries and Hudson Bay traders. The tales he brings back are priceless, and are what make this book so special. Barely mentioned, but notable, is the fact that it is the fashions of Paris, London and New York that are the sole reason for the presence of the Kabloona (other than the missionaries, but even they rely to some extent on the traders for survival) in these places. It is implied knowledge that the pelt of the White Fox is the de facto currency in those lands, even though the Inuit regard it as useless - it will eventually finds its way into the boutiques of the big cities. In that vein, there is surprisingly little treatment given to the wildlife in general, other than as a source of food or skins, although the sled dogs, by virtue of their forming an integral part of the arctic community, get some mention. In the end, it is the people that fascinate him, and it is their honesty, generosity and selfless acceptance of him that eventually win him over and help him to rid himself of his initial egoism.

Overall, Kabloona gives a phenomenal insight into a unique and vanished way of life, one whose essence should not be left to fade with time. This is a book that will stay on my shelves indefinitely.

Luke F. D. Marsden (author of Wondering, the Way is Made)
Profile Image for Sylvester (Taking a break in 2023).
2,041 reviews74 followers
October 3, 2011
I've been looking for this kind of book for ages - a look at the traditional Inuit way of life. This is a fascinating record of one man's year spent in the Arctic. de Poncins is often insulting in the way he perceives his hosts, considering them to be Stone Age people who are less "evolved" than himself, while at the same time expressing appreciation for their adaptable nomadic lifestyle. By the end of the year he finds himself finally beginning to comprehend their sense of community which had offended the ego-centric individualism of his own culture. I loved the first-hand details of traveling with sled dogs, the seal hunts, the building of igloos, etc. My favorite part came near the end, where de Poncins speaks of sledge-traveling as "reading from the Book of Silence" (what a beautiful expression that is!) - how he and his Inuit friend have become so in tune that they are "reading" the sky and the landscape and the dogs for signs, and they stop when they need to adjust the sledge or the pack - all without speaking, knowing what each others' thoughts are because they are reading from the same book. Lovely. A wonderful look at a lifestyle that no longer exists. Highly recommended. (Also loved the mention of the St. Roch - a legendary ship here in Canada, on display at the Maritime Museum here in Vancouver, if I'm not mistaken.)http://www.vancouvermaritimemuseum.co...
Profile Image for Kevin Lawrence.
117 reviews23 followers
October 24, 2013
A five-star is probably generous (wish we had the ability to give books 1/2 stars, since this would get a 4 and 1/2 stars from me), but I so thoroughly enjoyed Monsieur de Poncins and his breezy way of evoking the Arctic region and its inhabitants. Probably some will cringe at the way he calls the Eskimos "savages" and "primitives" at times, but he always does so with a recognition that their environment necessitates a sharp distinction from that of the "refined" and "civilized" world M. de Poncins was so eager to take leave of. And there is no denying after reading this book that he has a profound respect for the men and women who eke out an existence for themselves in the indifferent climate of the Arctic circle. But ultimately, it is the self-reflective passages about cabin fever and adapting to a different culture/environment that give this book a haunting and uplifting quality for me (the passage about how he wanted to kill his very agreeable cabin-mate in the dead of winter is uproariously funny!) And then there are moments when he waxes poetic on the landscape and its relation to the people he meets that I think will linger with me for a long time:

"...I spent a good deal of time compiling an Eskimo-English dictionary. Primitive languages have a directness which long gone out of the subtle and metaphorical terminology of civilized speech. The Eskimo word for bishop, for example, is ri-oo-mata, "the man who thinks"; thier word for polar bear is tara-i-tua-luk, "he who is without shadow" (thoguht the polar bear is also called "the eternal vagabond"). There is a sort of poetry of the concrete in their speech that is very moving. Thus, mi-kse, the word for "reality" is literally translatable as "the thing turned towards you." When an object moans in the wind it is said to "grind its teeth." If two people have fallen out they are said to "drift away from one another," and if a man has not understood you, it is said that "you have missed him," sil-la-ko-kto, as if you words were a spear that had missed its mark. Our abstractions flatter the mind, but their concrete images go direct to the senses and tickle the palate, the sense of smell and of sight." (p. 155)

Pretty amazing stuff, so worthy of a 5-star rating!
Profile Image for Eric_W.
1,920 reviews354 followers
December 31, 2008
I read this book years ago and would never have found it except it was part of a terrific series of books republished by Time/Life. I got a whole bunch of excellent works that way, which I probably would not have discovered elsewhere. Originally written in 1941, it describes an Inuit village and family as authentically and as sympathetically as possible. Highly recommended to everyone.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,008 reviews166 followers
June 21, 2020
Seldom have I encountered as extraordinary a book as Kabloona. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. The author, Gontran de Poncins, spent a year traveling among the Eskimos in the Arctic. This book is the result, distilled from his diaries by Lewis Galantiere. Poncins took the perspective of the Eskimos, and as a result he, Kabloona (the White Man), took seriously what they did. The book is thus a unique combination of travelogue, memoir, and cultural study. It provides the reader with a unique picture into a society that in many ways had changed little since the stone age. It is a society that neither cultivates crops nor domesticates animals; living by the fruit of the sea for food and clothing. The natural beauty and its essential nature are also explored by Poncins who observed:
"Strangest of all was the absence of color in this landscape. The world of the North, when it was not brown was grey. Snow, I discovered, is not white!" (p 56)

While the Eskimos called Poncins Kabloona, sometimes in derision, they proudly called themselves Inuit ("men, preeminently").
"I was to green to have any notion of Eskimo values. Every instinct in me prompted resistance, impelled me to throw these men out [of my igloo], --to do things which would have been stupid since they would have astonished my Eskimos fully as much as they might have angered them." (p 64)
Poncins eventually embraced their culture and thereby through sharing their lives and learning their culture he began to understand them. This is demonstrated over and over in the book as Poncins tells of his experiences with the Inuit against the background of the harsh nature of the Arctic.
"Everything about the Eskimo astonishes the white man, and everything about the white man is a subject of bewilderment for the Eskimo. Our least gesture seems to him pure madness, and our most casual and insignificant act may have incalculable results for him."

I was most impressed by the description of nature and the land as in this moment from Chapter Four:

"It goes without saying that this tundra is barren of vegetation. No tree flourishes her, no bush is to be seen, the land is without pasture, without oases; neither the camel nor the wild ass could survive here where man is able to live. The Eskimo, preeminently a nomad and sea-hunter, is driven by the need to feed his family from point to point round an irregular circle, and it is the revolution of the seasons that directs his march." (p 77)

Much of what Poncins saw has disappeared over the decades since he visited the Eskimos. Their life, while still relatively unspoiled compared to most other societies is no longer one of a true Stone Age people. They live in shacks and seal oil is giving way to kerosene; even outboard motors may be seen. This remarkable book chronicles an earlier age a a people whose culture was an amazing anomaly in the twentieth century. The result is an exciting cultural and travel adventure told through a very personal narrative voice.
Profile Image for Sandra The Old Woman in a Van.
1,055 reviews33 followers
January 6, 2020
Wow. In 1938 this Frenchman spent a year living with the indigenous people of the far north Arctic region in Canada (missed a kind of important year in France). This is a memoir of that time - I could almost give this book 5 stars because the topic became enthralling. The culture and behaviors were so different from any I have experienced or heard described. This was factually interesting - definitely a lot of OMG’s and ewwwww’s and “how cold?” Some interpretations were very astute. The other aspect of this book is how the reader’s perception of such a unique culture is challenged to wonder if there are any absolute truths about us?

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Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
488 reviews76 followers
April 27, 2019
Some men are born with restless spirits, and are always seeking the ends of the earth. They remind me of a moment in Steinbeck’s The Red Pony where he says, “There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.” de Poncins was one such restless spirit, and wasn’t stopped by the ocean. He traveled to the South Pacific and remote regions of China before deciding to go to the far, far north in the late 1930s.

It is an amazing tale, full of fascinating, complex, maddening characters, and the author’s eye for detail enlivens the scenes of life in the camps, in crowded igloos, and on journeys by dogsled. The Arctic in the dead of winter is a constant danger, and just calling it a frozen wasteland does not begin to do justice to the ice, the howling winds, and the constant, killing cold. De Poncins himself changes as time goes by, slowly slipping away from the expectations of his European mindset, and settling into the timeless state of the natives where survival is the first, last, and only concern, and is only possible by working together and sharing with those around him. As he reflected on his time in the Arctic, he remarked, “My year in the north has not been, as I thought it, a year of conquest of the elements, but of conquest of myself. And because of the peculiarity of my conquest, the Arctic for me is no longer a source of suffering but of joy. It is the crucible in which, slowly and patiently, the dross in my nature has to some extent been melted away.”

The writing is beautiful, but it is hard for the reader to know whether you are hearing de Poncin’s voice or that of the collator and translator who put the diaries and notes into a coherent volume. Whoever wrote the words, there are passages that are beautiful and evocative, such as, “The glow over the earth penetrated the soul and filled it with a sort of exaltation. It was less properly light than atmosphere. It was not light because it struck no object with its strength but merely lay over the world, laved it, suggested itself subtly and indirectly. The sun’s rim was on the horizon, but it seemed not to be rays from the sun that brought this light; it was self-created, mysterious, universally present without a source of radiation.”

This book could never be published today, as it would certainly be deemed insufficiently deferential to the native peoples. He viewed them as masters of their environment, and was respectful of their ingenuity and perseverance, but he also saw them through the prism of European culture and considered them primitive, childlike, and in some cases lacking the basic thought processes of civilized people. Of course, he was a person of his times, and it seems unfair to judge him by the cultural sensitivities of today (not that that will stop people from doing so). Nevertheless it is a remarkable book, and well worth reading.
Profile Image for Dave Gaston.
160 reviews45 followers
September 9, 2010
After I finished this fantastic audio book, I looked it up on Amazon to buy a used hard copy. I was little chagrined to discover the original printing date. Wow, this contemporary, quirky book -- that I just fell in love with -- was written 70 years ago. What a fun twist in time travel! Of course, three things aided the modern day allusion; first, it was read to me (on my ipod) by a modern audio book legend, Grover Gardner; Second, the setting is timeless, the remote wild's of the Canadian Arctic, and finally; I assumed the charming French-to-English translation was to blame for forcing just a hint of formality. Regardless, this classic adventure will stick to your ribs long after you have finished it. It is incredibly well written. It reads very fast for a book from the 40's. The story begins with Panches leaving Paris to live and study among the most remote tribal people on earth, the Canadian Arctic Inuits. For 15 months he moved among three remote Arctic tribes, living as they do, from day to day, absorbing their primitive, almost prehistoric, way of life. Their nomadic life was driven by hunger and thrashed about by the harsh laws of nature’s violent forces. In this barren sub zero land, the Inuit face the daily threat of starvation and exposure with great indifference. Past physically freezing to death, Panches biggest mental challenge turned out to be isolation. In addition, he had to reinvent his composure, severely modifying his natural inclinations with every Inuit interaction (several, life threatening). Panches describes his cunning effort in breaking through the cultural barrier; interpreting, in his words, “a truly primitive mind.” The book barks of some prejudice, but this was a man’s fair conclusion after keenly studying the unique Inuit mind and method (...in 1940). Light a fire, and read this adventure book during a cold snap. How cold? Cold enough to yank a 30 lb. fish out of the water and have it flash freeze before it skids across the ice. That’s cold baby!
Profile Image for Marya.
3 reviews
July 28, 2008
Faaaaascinating! The reasons are threefold. First, the Inuit way of life observed and duly chronicled by the Vicomte Gontran De Poncins de Montainge. Gontran De Poncins himself, aka "Mike" A French aristocrat adventurer cum amateur anthropolgist and natural diarist. His experiences, observations (sometimes profound, often profoundly racist)and sketches come together as a vivid, candid, and insightful narrative. Finally the work itself as witness to the colonial context and inner workings of the colonial mind set. The language is at times repugnant to the modern reader, but a priceless illustration of the colonial psyche.
Profile Image for Mary Mccoy.
36 reviews3 followers
May 28, 2008
In 1939 this author left France and went to northern Canada to spend a year with the remote, mostly untouched, eskimos. His observations (and lack of judgement) on the eskimo culture are wonderful. One white guy said to him, "These eskimos is no good" and the author writes, what he really meant is that the eskimos are not good at being white people. His descriptions of day-to-day life are so real. Of course, I see many parallels to observing life in Tonga. In fact "Kabloona" is the eskimo word for "white man" (or "palangi as my Tongan connections will know). I love this book.
Profile Image for George.
189 reviews20 followers
March 31, 2009
Okay, I mentioned my top five books on the North when I wrote about Nunaga. Kabloona is one of those top five books. I even have the audio cd's of this book (which I will also try to recommend). If you want to know the details of a westerner (an outsider or "kabloona") living among the indigenous people, this is a wonderful place to start. Amazing. Remarkable. Extraordinary.
Profile Image for Ke*.
130 reviews28 followers
March 9, 2021
A fascinating, historical (anthropological) journey into the world of the Inuit.
Profile Image for Yusuf.
230 reviews28 followers
January 13, 2023
1930'larda Kanada'nın kutup bölgelerine gidip Inuit'lerle yaşamış bir Fransızın hatıraları... Böyle bir kitabın kötü olması zor bence. Su gibi akan bir kitap. Yazar politik doğruculuğun bilinmediği bir zamanda kitabı yazdığı için Inuit'lerle ilgili yazdıkları bir Avrupalının o zamanlar dünyayı nasıl anladığını da iyi gösteriyor. Sözünü sakınmayan biri olması da kitabı daha ilginç hale getirmiş.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Owen.
255 reviews24 followers
July 16, 2012
Gontran de Poncins's "Kabloona" is a classic of Arctic adventure, to be ranked alongside Farley Mowat's "People of the Deer," Harold Horwood's "White Eskimo" and parts of Peter Freuchen's "Vagrant Viking." A French aristocrat with a genuine yearning for adventure, de Poncins made his way to North America just prior to the last war. By stages, he managed to go right up into latter day Nunavut, some of the highest inhabited Arctic territory in Canada's north. Yet he didn't stop there. Putting himself into the hands of an Eskimo hunter who happened to be heading off onto the sea ice, he underwent an extraordinary odyssey lasting the winter through, in which he camped with the Eskimos in their winter igloos.

de Poncins takes us into the very private, very communal world of these northern people. Private because, for Europeans, entering this strangely illuminated landscape was even then almost an impossibility. de Poncins admits that his initial impression was overshadowed by the nausea which sprang immediately into being as he tried to deal with the strange mixture of smells in the igloos. Most Europeans would not pass that first test and many an estimate of Eskimo culture has no doubt been biased by just such an affront to a sensitive olfactory centre. Yet once he had passed this initial barrier, a process which he says took some time, he found himself in a world unlike any other he had experienced or imagined. It is into this ageless community that he takes us for a very privileged glimpse of the last of the true ice-dwellers.

Although a French national, de Poncins chose to remain in North America and he wrote his text about the Inuit in English, in collaboration with a friend. Not much is known about the author's life thereafter, as he did not publish much other work, but like G. B. Edwards's solitary yet wonderful book about life on Guernsey, "The Book of Ebenezer Le Page," this one book by de Poncins is a major accomplishment.
Profile Image for Xina Uhl.
Author 63 books48 followers
August 20, 2013
A French nobleman spent 15 months among the Inuit in the 1930s. Entertaining, interesting, and occasionally politically incorrect (the author does not seem to understand that "homosexual" does not equal "pedophile") it is well worth noting and then overlooking past ignorance for a rousing travel story. This is not to say that past ignorance excuses bad behavior, just that we cannot hold past individuals to our standards of morality. A hundred years from now people will be appalled by some of the opinions and practices that we find unremarkable today. The narrator here is fine.

Summary: In this classic of adventure, travel, anthropology, and spiritual awakening, de Poncins is a French nobleman who spent fifteen months in 1938 and 1939 living among the Inuit people of the Arctic. He is at first appalled by their way of life: eating rotten raw fish, sleeping with each others' wives, ignoring schedules, and helping themselves to his possessions. But as his odyssey continues, he is transformed from an uncomprehending outsider to someone who finds himself living as Inuk: a man, preeminently.
Profile Image for Donna.
94 reviews
October 17, 2015
Imagine a time in the arctic before wooden houses with heat, snow mobiles, telephones, television, internet..... only snow and ice as far as the eye can see. Need a house? Chop up snow and build one. Interior temp never higher than 32 degrees (F)since it would melt!

Every page of this "adventure" journal brings the details of an arctic, hunter community to life. The sounds, the smells(!), the repetition, the exhaustion of it all, and the contentment of the Inuit with their way of life. His details about the personalities and ways of living were shared as he participated. He expressed curiosity, revulsion, resignation, bewilderment, wonder and, eventually, respect for their simple and rhythmic life in a cold and unforgiving land. I experienced each of his days through his journaling. This book is one of a kind and a fascinating read.
315 reviews2 followers
February 2, 2014
I read this book 10 years ago and never could get it out of my head. I had to read it again, recommend to to everyone, and own it. The author, the most interesting man in the world, changes as he lives with the Inuit. His insights on people, their environment, and relationships teaches him and us that underneath all the exterior trappings, we are more alike than different. One of the best books I've ever read.
Profile Image for Colin Murphy.
120 reviews1 follower
November 19, 2019
A masterpiece - one of the greatest contributions to the study of the Inuit specifically and to the field of anthropology in general. Poncins was able to experience a once-in-a-lifetime journey and observe it with unimaginable humility and keenness. A society so pristine and uncontaminated as the Eskimos of Pelly Bay no longer exists to be observed, yet alone a man of such caliber as that of Poncins to observe it.
Profile Image for Thomas.
441 reviews67 followers
November 27, 2015
it would have been really cool to have been an Inuit in the 1930s trolling this guy
Profile Image for Tom Johnson.
401 reviews21 followers
July 20, 2017
I first read Kabloona about 10 years ago - I gave it five stars. Since reading, "The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic", I have reread and reassessed M. Poncins' book on his Arctic experience. Unlike Edward, who always kept his focus on the Inuit, Poncins seemed to be far more interested in himself. That may be an unfair take but pages 291-299, with the introduction of the lamentable HBC apprentice, L., seemed entirely too contrived to be real. The way Poncins compared himself to L. was clumsy and heavy-handed. Of a sudden Poncins declares himself to be Eskimo! That seemed a bridge too far. Still, for all that, Kabloona remains an interesting read. That there were major differences between Edward and Poncins did not matter as much as the huge difference between their respective books. Edward's book goes on my all-time favorites shelf, Poncins' does not. Another irritation of note. On page 114, I found it odd for Poncins to say, "...and he (the white trader at the Post) will have started in that obscure consciousness, (of the Inuit with whom he was dealing) which I hesitate to call a mind." Ouch. Those words seem a tad arrogant for a man who wouldn't last an hour in the extreme climate of the Arctic to say about a man who was more than capable to live in comfort in minus 50 degree weather, albeit at times precariously, for many a year.
Profile Image for Nancy Kennedy.
Author 12 books54 followers
July 2, 2014
As a young Frenchman living in Paris in the late 1930s, Gontran de Poncins slowly comes to realize that he has an urgent desire to live among the primitive Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic, even if he doesn't understand it himself. "I know only that some time before that spring day the word Eskimo had rung inside me and that the sound had begun to swell like the vibrations of a great bell," he writes.

With the assistance of the Catholic Church, which had missionaries in the far north, Mr. de Poncins makes his way, slowly and laboriously, to Canada, and then from Waterways to Goldfields to Coppermine to King William Land to Pelly Bay. As he travels farther north, he leaves more and more of civilization behind, until he lands in a settlement of igloos and Eskimos who have seen only one white man in their lives, the Catholic priest who lives in a ice-hole cut into the side of a hill. Here, life is considered normal and liveable in constant temperatures of fifty below zero. Every meal here consists of frozen raw fish, gnawed without utensils, and seal hides are the community's only currency.

Written as it was in 1941, this book itself is from another era altogether. I read slowly and with an open dictionary. My vocabulary was enriched on every page: susurrant, caracole, hebetude, somnambulism. Great words! The worlds he describes are even more remote and unknown to those of us in this generation, seventy-five years later.

Mr. de Poncins is both attracted and repelled by the worlds and people he encounters. His directness is refreshing, unencumbered as it is by any sort of political correctness. "The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping," he writes of three Eskimos feasting on freshly killed seal. But he also surprised to find that he admires these men and women. Of an Eskimo who he describes as "infinitely repugnant of personality," he can also write of him as he builds an igloo, "This rude and mindless being became suddenly an artist as he stooped with a sober, concentrated gaze over the snow."

Mr. de Poncins' descriptive powers are great and the narrative is enlivened by his equally charming drawings and fascinating photographs. And, although he eventually has to return to civilization, his experiences leave him with a changed perspective, and a nostalgia for his time in the North. "These were the only moments of my life when I was describable not as a Frenchman, not as an individual product of heritage, place, environment, but as nothing other than, s
Profile Image for Karson.
179 reviews11 followers
July 9, 2015
This was a pleasurable book about a french guy who lives with Eskimos for about a year and a half. He is a good story teller, and he doesn't inappropriately interject himself into the story too much. From stuff I have read in the past, the experience of living with more primitive people always makes the civilized visitor reflect on materialism and happiness. The "primitive" people always seem to have a higher quality of happiness, community, and a better ability to live in the moment. They also have less knowledge about other cultures, so they aren't plagued by the question "Is this the best way to live?" If you have only experienced one way of living than you don't worry about all the other options. The Inuit are also too busy with the 24/7 work of survival to philosophize about questions like that. They are a tight community of people struggling against a common foe: nature. Poncins touches on these ideas briefly in the last pages of the book. A lot of time in "the civilized world" is spent thinking about people we don't like. We make fun of them and distance ourselves from them. We push them out of OUR category and into the category of "the other". Poncins mentions the experience of sitting around with his acquaintances and feeling slightly annoyed by one or two of them. Before he knows it he is extremely annoyed by them, and totally caught up in these minor rubs we have with people of different personalities than us. The Inuit, he observed, had these spats but were so united towards one goal (basic survival) that these stupid social games were never played. Humanity doesn't have one goal like that in our wide and varied civilization. Too many options to choose from; too many divergent paths for us to realize what we have in common. A flash blizzard while stuck out in 40 below temperatures would pull us together for a moment. I think Poncins would say that, to our surprise, that would be a happy moment.
Profile Image for Alex.
231 reviews3 followers
May 31, 2011
" Unique experience of a brave and adventurous French aristocrat and journalist living with the Eskimos for over a year in the era before their being significantly affected by the outside civilizations. The author captured their lives vividly without the hindrance of political or racial correctness, which is by now custom when people express themselves publicly (but much of it is a mere disguise). Even as he describes, and also labels, the natives as appallingly savage, he shows so much aspects of this people as friendly, honest, kind, resourceful, courageous, and, overall, simply lovable. So to me this is an unbiased work.

He portraits a few westerners mixing themselves there, which is also interesting.

Somehow this small passage is so moving to me -- After being almost completely isolated from the Europeans for almost a year, he was about to meet a French priest near the arctic! He planned to give him a little humorous surprise by first speaking in English and then reveal his true nationality. However, at the first sight of his countryman, he found himself running over, tears in the eyes, grasping the hands of the other, uttering in his native tongue: Father, here I am, a Frenchman, coming to meet you... (Tears in my eyes too at this point) But this is only one of quite some moving moments in the book.

Profile Image for Rozzer.
83 reviews62 followers
May 29, 2012
Some would dispute the status of this work as a "travel book." I do not agree. To me, a true "travel" book involves the displacement of an individual from their accustomed environment and their attempted insertion of themselves into very different (to them), strange situations. Monsieur de Poncins was a Frenchman, immuring himself shortly before WWII in the most northerly culture of all, that of the Arctic Inuit. This was before prosperity came to the Inuit. Before modern weapons, before motorized transport and before easily available consumer goods. De Poncins lived with these people when they still faced the daily, traditional struggle with extremes of climate. He learned how to cut and build igloos in the midst of winter storms. He learned how to live on raw blubber fat when the sun wouldn't rise for another six months. His detailed observations are extremely telling. His devotion to the objects of his study is extremely impressive. He went on to write a number of other books, none of which, to me at least, measured up to what he achieved in this work.
Profile Image for Michael Crye.
5 reviews
January 29, 2009
A honest journey of a modern man into the alien cultures of the northern Inuit tribes. While many authors would hide behind their ego in presenting themselves to the reader on this adventure in the icy wastes. Gontran shares his thoughts as they occur without much censor. From his comical murderous thoughts of his cabin mate at the trading post to slowly developing respect for the natives and their way of life. His criticism ranges from a humane point of view for humankind and animals to pure shock at some of the most innocent habits of those around him. The book is a true treasure in many regards. It lacks the anthropologist's eye and instead shows a flawed but interesting person's visit to a world vastly removed from his own experiences.
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