Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of House Calls By Dogsled: Six Years in An Arctic Medical Outpost by Keith Billington

House Calls by Dogsled: Six Years in an Arctic Medical Outpost By Keith Billington

Highly recommended reading for anyone with experience in front line medical services, anyone who has volunteered or worked overseas in challenging conditions or those who yearn for Arctic adventures...and may be limited to the warmth and stability of their armchairs, not quite up to running behind a frisky dog team on snowshoes.<>

The Billingtons, both trained nurses in Britain, with midwifery certification for Muriel and additional dental, X-ray and other must-have training taken once in Canada, signed up for a two year stint in Fort McPherson on the Mackenzie Delta. They arrived in mid-September, 1964, and with the boundless optimism and energy of those barely in their twenties, they began their familiarization with the Nursing Outpost Station and soon, the harsh winter conditions.<>

What shines through this book is their rational, non-judgmental intelligence, cheerful natures, willingness to learn all kinds of skills and social customs from the Gwich'in people, and the sheer joy in living a life they could only imagine as they read adventure stories as children. This is not a world-weary travelogue as delivered, with polished literary panache, by the likes of Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin. This is the stuff of CUSO volunteers and Peace Corps who sign up for their two year stints to work and live in rustic conditions, adapting to new customs and learning more than a little of a new language. They are not afraid to show their own tears when a baby dies and to marvel at the dignity of the Gwich'in parents who shake their hands- with one firm, characteristic shake- and who thank them for all they did.<>

We are treated to the last decade of a traditional way of life, before satellite TV and snowmobiles altered the hardy northerners' work and leisure. The accounts of getting lost with a dog team en route to a smaller village in -55 F and of arriving at a bush camp with a baby in diapers are storytelling classics. The Billingtons, who were obviously much-loved and respected, stayed for six years and began their own family with two children while in the Mackenzie Delta.<>

Maybe it's because I had an aunt who was a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse in the 30's and 40's in Kyuquot and Cecil Lake, B.C. that makes this book resonate for me or because I've always wanted to kayak down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean...but in any case, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, life-affirming, makes-me-proud-to-be- Canadian sort of book!<>

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