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WHITE FOX AND ICY SEAS IN THE WESTERN ARCTIC: THE FUR TRADE, TRANSPORTATION, AND CHANGE IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY. By JOHN R. BOCKSTOCE. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0-300-22179-4. xv + 327 p., maps, b&w illus., chronology, glossary, notes, bib., index. Hardbound. US$40.00.

John Bockstoce's White Fox and Icy Seas is a well-illustrated historical economic geography of a vast coastal area extending from eastern Siberia to King William Sound in the central Canadian Arctic. This vast Arctic area is the homeland of the Chukchi, Yupik, Inupiat, Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, and Natsilingmiut. Bockstoce surveys the impact that external economic forces, local environmental settings, and political changes had on these Indigenous peoples from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. The author did not intend to address major theoretical issues in economic, social, or Indigenous history, but rather to provide an engaging narrative history that demonstrates how shifting global markets for local products and local socio-political developments influenced the lives of Western Arctic coast Indigenous people.

To tell this ambitious and complex story, the author interviewed numerous Indigenous and non-Indigenous hunters, trappers, and traders and undertook extensive archival research. Bockstoce also drew on his own extensive, firsthand knowledge of much of the area, acquired during his widespread travels there beginning in 1969 and while serving on an Eskimo whaling crew in the Chukchi Sea near Point Hope, Alaska. This familiarity with the people and the lands and oceans enabled him to write an engaging story that is chock-full of fascinating anecdotes, although it is not deflected by them.

White Fox and Icy Seas deviates from a typical historical study in that it does not proceed chronologically from the outset. Rather, Bockstoce opens his monograph with a section of chapters that recounts the brief rise and fall of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Ross on Somerset Island in Canada's central Arctic in 1937-48, during the last phase of the Arctic fox fur trade. The author's purpose in this section is twofold: first, to introduce the major themes of the book, and second, to provide the reader with an understanding of the specific characteristics of the Arctic fox trade. Bockstoce regards Fort Ross's brief, 12-year history as a paradigm for the history of the Arctic fox trade itself. The section's closing chapter, on all aspects of the Arctic fox business, gives the reader an appreciation of the depth of knowledge and skill a trapper needed to pursue these animals and prepare their skins for market. The remaining chapters of the book proceed chronologically.

For those acquainted with the history of the fur trade, White Fox and Icy Seas tells a familiar story. The exchange dimensions of local Inuit economies were affected massively by changing global fashions in dress. One of the most important of these changes took place during the first decade of the 20th century, when wearing corsets became unfashionable. Because the primary use of whalebone was in the manufacture of corset stays, this fashion change led to the collapse of the whaling industry in the Bering and Chukchi Seas area. Indigenous people in the area had been heavily involved in this lucrative commerce for several decades as whalers. Also, some had become very successful traders, recalling the roles that First Nations and Metis trading captains had played in earlier fur trades in the Subarctic and plains regions of Canada. As the market for whalebone collapsed, the demand for white Arctic fox soared with the growing popularity of long-haired furs used to trim garments and make muffs. Throughout the Arctic, Indigenous groups quickly turned to the trapping and trading of Arctic fox, an animal that most of them had largely ignored previously. The trade boomed during the 1920s, but the widespread economic depression of the 1930s and new fashion trends away from long-haired furs once World War II broke out in 1939 caused Arctic fox pelt prices to plummet, spelling the end of this once-lucrative trade. The region thus suffered a major economic depression in the 1940s. After the war, short-haired furs came into vogue, and many of these, especially mink, were produced on fur farms located in southern regions. Thus, the Arctic fox trade did not rebound.

Although White Fox and Icy Seas emphasizes the fur trade and whaling economies, the author also explores other important topics relevant to life in the various sub-regions of the Arctic. These topics include the Alaskan-Yukon gold rushes beginning in 1897, the four-decade-long decline of Arctic caribou herds in northern Alaska beginning in the 1870s and their subsequent recovery, and the establishment of Soviet Russia's control of the Chukchi Peninsula. Curiously, the subtitle of Bockstoce's monograph indicates that transportation will be a major theme, but the author does not provide an extended or systematic discussion of the topic. Likewise, key communication developments of the period, most notably radio, receive only passing mention.

White Fox and Icy Seas is very well illustrated. The author includes more than 60 well-chosen archival photographs, as well as eight original maps that help orient the reader for the discussions of events that unfolded in the various sub-regions. Inclusion of a few graphs of fur and whalebone prices would have helped readers to visualize market trends, which the author discusses at length. Also, a list of illustrations would have been a welcome addition, given that they are a crucial part of the author's story.

In the end, John Bockstoce's White Fox and Icy Seas is not a romantic story of the Arctic fur trade: on the contrary, it is largely a story of hardship and struggle and adaptation. In telling this difficult story, the author reveals his attachment to the people and the place, and this personal connection enables him to make a compelling and unique contribution to our understanding of the historical, cultural, and economic geography of the vast Western Arctic region during the late 1800s to the mid 1900s.

Arthur J. Ray

Department of History

The University of British Columbia

Vancouver, British Columbia V6T1Z4, Canada
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Author:Ray, Arthur J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2018

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