Leighton, Alexander H., COME NEAR. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971, 351 pp., $6.95
This is a fascinating story cast in an Eskimo village, Steiler Island, "a small land a little between Asia and America." "There was little else farther north." The tale opens with Williams, the principal character, a depressed intellectual, who was cogitating on the cleanest and best way to dispose of himself and had decided that he would row a small boat out into the Bering Sea. He would "row and rest and steal from fatigue into relaxation into rest into nothing," but fate, the winds and the sea, cast him up on a shore where he was rescued by three Eskimos: Hobart, an attractive youngster; Randolph, grim and forbidding; and Captain Mulligan, who owned the rescue boat. They had been far from their base camp hunting old ivory and "cormorants for summer meat." Reluctantly Williams had to accompany them to the island for he was too weak to do anything else.
The island people numbered about 200-250; all were natives except a school teacher, a government agent, a man and wife who were missionaries and a government nurse, Margaret McGlaughlin. Margaret was said to be Randolph's girlfriend, but whatever else she was, she was a capable, conscientious and lovable creature.
Williams almost immediately became a favorite of Sampson, strong man of the island, part shaman and part fakir, who prophesied various events through the medium of voices which came to him from "somewhere."
Life on the island is graphically described - the overcrowded, smoky, rooms, partitioned by reindeer curtains; primitive lives, primitive customs, primitive words and activities. It was all a bit of life in the raw.
The inexperienced Williams, still a bit condescending, was pressed into service to help the nurse with the difficult delivery of Sampson's daughter's first child. Margaret was the medical profession of the island, and she was sweating it out with the young girl, who was near the point of exhaustion and was delivering in Eskimo position. The baby's head was seemingly reluctant to move down that path which every human creature, if he is to be born, must travel. It was the skill of the nurse which brought a happy ending to the ordeal.
We know little of Williams' past. We are assured, however, that he was in no trouble and was not escaping from anyone or anything but himself. The nurse, knowing his proclivities, felt responsible for him. Her character is well drawn: an Ulster girl raised in a parsonage in Antrim, trained at Hopkins, and after public health training enlisted in the Alaska Native Service.
It would be unfair to give the details of the fascinating story of the various personalities met with in daily island life, but it was inevitable that after a seemly interval and in seemly fashion Williams and Margaret would be drawn together. Here "come near" was not easy- it was not even a conquest; it just happened. A bit of a hoyden, she had told him of her past and would have told him of the present, but he was too impatient to listen to what everyone else on the Island already knew. One can love the picture the author draws of Margaret, can almost see her and relish her blackhaired beauty. She was beginning to make Williams human again.
While we are working up to this denouement, there are excellent descriptions of daily life in the community, such as Hobart's death from TB, and Sampson's feeling that Williams must stay in order to kill the brown bear which has been wreaking havoc with the natives' property and some Eskimo lives. Psychological and romantic disaster struck while on the reindeer hunt. Unknown to both of them, Williams' and Margaret's tents abutted one another, and during the night Williams heard zippers and unmistakable sounds of what was going on next door, and even heard Margaret pronounce the man's name. It was Randolph, an Eskimo!
The confrontation later was intense and some of the names he called her specific. She had feared tragedy. Men were her problem, and she was unable to help herself. She was afraid Randolph, who loved her, might kill her and himself. Sampson thought Williams ought to "beat hell out of her," and the populace, knowing of Randolph's murderous jealousy, thought Williams should shoot him, but neither happened. Margaret held her head up and behaved admirably and tended strictly to duty through it all.
Well, this is enough to give an idea of the action, but no hint of the dialogue, the thoughts, the stream-of-consciousness reporting of the author. Both the girl and Williams were well-read, and some of the conversation and references were indicative of their broad culture.
We can tell you that one last dramatic episode threw Margaret and Williams together as they hunted for a beloved little boy, Butchie, whose mother had given him to Captain Mulligan and his wife. Both of the latter perished on a journey; their dog team and sled came home to the island empty. The hunt for the boy was on, and Williams and Margaret were on the same rescue team over a route suggested by Sampson. They found the child and became heroes in the camp. All of the rest you will have to find out for yourselves, but you'll be entranced in the doing.
That this novel could be written by an internationally respected physician, psychiatrist, anthropologist and sociologist, who is now the head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Harvard, is remarkable. It brings to mind that apocryphal statement about a marshal's baton in the knapsack of each of Bonaparte's soldiers, for here is a first-class novel from the knapsack of a man famous rn several other fields.
It is an exciting, interesting, moving tale, and one can only hope that leisure will again be afforded the author for surely his knapsack contains many other tales.