After a day setting nets for white whales, bartering for dog meat, eating seal out of the common pot, and meditating upon the universe, nothing warms a man like Jamaica Rum and Applejack lifted toward the stars in a pretty toast to one’s native housekeeper.
Who said Greenland was a cold country?
1 PART JAMAICA RUM
2 PARTS APPLEJACK
-from So Red the Nose
According to Wondrich, “Jamaica” rum doesn’t refer to the location so much as the method of manufacture — namely, small-batch pot-stilling. I used the Wondrich-approved Gosling’s Black Seal, which makes me happy since its logo fits in so nicely with our book’s Greenland theme.
So how does this “Jamaica” (Bermuda-made) rum compare to, say, my typical Captain Morgan’s? Well, not to go all drink-hipster on you, but Gosling’s makes the factory-brewed stuff taste like sugar water. It is much richer, much darker, and much more flavorful.
As far as the Salamina cocktail itself, it’s not my favorite or anything, but it tastes fine and is very drinkable. The applejack and rum actually complement each other really well. I think it’s kind of an in-between drink. If you really like hard liquors, it might seem to be on the sweet side, while if you are more of a mixer-type, this will have just a bit of a bite to it. Since I’m one of those in-between people, who hates strawberry daiquiris but couldn’t choke down straight whiskey for anything, it’s kind of the perfect drink for me.
We sat there silently and looked. One had no need to cry, “Look! See!” to tell the other what was there. Each drank of it as he desired; that was good. If life could always be like that we’d have no need of art.
– from Salamina
Greenland. What do most of us really know about it besides its distortedly huge outline on the map? Or maybe some sad polar bars on melting icebergs? Greenland is sort of fascinating in its very obscurity (At least it is to Americans. Apologies to any Greenlanders reading this).
In 1931, Rockwell Kent journeyed far from his New England home in order to capture the people and, especially, the landscapes of this harsh, frozen country, not through his writing, but through his painting. The already successful and well-known book illustrator and latter-day transcendentalist would only later publish a written version of his escapades to the frozen north in the 1935 memoir Salamina.
Salamina reads a lot like a collection of old-timey letters, a disorganized combination of rambling — if elegantly worded — anecdotes, place descriptions, and general musings. Kent may start the chapter describing a dispute with the local trader and end with the a reflection on the true nature of love. When Kent-the-writer is at his best, these individual brush strokes combine to create something beautiful by the end. But, well, that definitely doesn’t happen every chapter. Or even most chapters.
I was interested in the first third or so of this book when it really focused on the relationships Kent was building in the remote village (is any Greenland village not remote?) of Igdlorrsuit. Chapter three, for example, tells the story of an Inuit woman married to the local Danish trader, and through it, Kent is able to explore the sexual politics involved in a colonized nation in a surprisingly frank way. The rest of this section deals with the various other characters Kent met, fished and hunted with, or employed along the way, chief among them his kifak (um…”housekeeper”…*cough* *cough*) and the book’s namesake.
With one exception, all of these characters are Inuit, which of course does give some rather fascinating insight into a little-seen culture. Kent recorded in great detail their language, society, and tools (like that kick-ass human kayak thing). His attitude leans maybe just a touch toward the “noble savage” side, but its refreshing that his impressions are mostly positive. Mostly.
But, his affectionate yet possessive relationship with Salamina notwithstanding, at the end of the day Kent went to Greenland for its natural, not human, charms and the book ends up devolving into long descriptions of ice and snow. Even as most of these descriptions are breathtakingly lovely (see captions), after 336 pages they do get a little…repetitive.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
As far as transcendentalist tomes go, I enjoyed Salamina more than the only other one I’ve read, Walden, which sits right next to censorship, genocide, and the band Train as things I hate in this world. Maybe I liked Kent more because sailing ships through isolated but beautiful foreign lands is much more in tune with my idea sucking out all the marrow of life than watching ants and mooching of your mom all day.
Still, for me, Salamina suffered from one of the same flaws that Walden did: they both had really good, really insightful individual quotes — ones I still ponder to this day– but the payoff wasn’t worth the pages and pages of tedium. I take it that these authors simply used a stream-of-consciousness writing system to provoke inspiration, but that doesn’t mean your readers have to come along for the ride.
That’s not to say there is no audience for this book. Salamina was a popular best-seller in its day and is still in print. And obviously Walden isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I read Salamina over winter break, and I kind of think reading it during a slower time is the way to do it. Most of the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere and the characterization of the various personalities is hit or miss, but, you know, it’s kind of true to life in that way. If all you’re looking for is a relaxing little vacation to a beautiful but chilly land, Salamina’s your book.
When he’s at his best, his writing can be charming, clever, and insightful, but when taken overall, I think Rockwell Kent should have stuck to paint.
Salamina is available in paperback or hardcover on Amazon. Rockwell Kent’s Greenland series of paintings are scattered in art museums across the globe.
Next time: Both a drink and a book that are delightful, delicious, and de-lovely