Village of the Ghost Bears is the fourth book in the series starring Alaskan Trooper Nathan Active. The series has many fans, and for good reason; this novel isn't just a mystery about who started a fatal fire, it's also a source of insight into the lives and culture of Native Americans in Northwest Alaska. Jones is an Alaskan native (and a Bush pilot), so he knows what he's talking about.
I have to praise the exceptionally useful and fun glossary of Northwest Alaskan terms in the Inupiaq* (IN-you-pack) language (which I understand he includes in every book). I learned from it that a kinnaq (KIN-ock) is "a crazy person," that iq'mik (ICK-mick) is "a form of chewing tobacco made by combining leaf tobacco with the ashes of burnt tree fungus, usually birch" and that quiyuk (KWEE-yuk) means "sex." (Try tossing those into your next dinner conversation.) Kidding aside, I found myself often turning back to the glossary to find out the meaning and pronunciation of words used by Jones' characters throughout the story.
Some of the storylines in the Nathan Active series, primarily those involving his personal life, are continuous. In particular, incidents from the previous book come in to play here, but without explanation. Jones does not include any plot recaps, so the reader is dropped into the middle of Nathan Active's life. This was a problem for me, since I had not read the previous books. I immediately felt lost when, on page 4, Nathan and girlfriend Grace begin obliquely referring to a sexual problem between them that I was already supposed to know about. (Importantly, and as I was not able to learn until later, Grace is a survivor of incest.) The following couple of chapters introduce other key characters who also have histories with each other, and it felt like everyone was giving each other meaningful glances and leaving me out. It took me three chapters to feel like I was caught up. For followers of the series, this won't be an issue.
It is fairly easy to predict where Jones is going. The mystery fizzles out at the end, and by the time we reach the climax there is no surprise about "whodunnit." The crime that was the original focus of the investigation - the recreation center fire, and the people who were killed in it - are lost in a gamut of other crimes (some red herrings) and occurrences. Jones tries to tie it all together in a tedious explanation to Grace that takes up most of the final chapter.
Village of the Ghost Bears is not a page-turner, or a taut thriller. It is a straightforward mystery, with some really interesting information about Alaska and the Inupiat culture. With the exception of Active, the main characters were a bit one-dimensional. Even Active shows less of an interior life than I would have liked to see. He is a complex-enough character, but Jones doesn't take advantage of it.
If you have enjoyed the previous books, you will probably enjoy this one. If you are new to the series, and want to learn about Inupiat culture through these books, I recommend starting with one of the earlier books so that you don't feel too lost in the beginning of this volume.
*Inupiat, Inuit, and Eskimo
Before he begins the novel, Jones explains the correct way to refer to the people of this region:
"Eskimo" is the best-known term for the Native Americans described in this book, but it is not their term. They call themselves "Inupiat," meaning "the people." "Eskimo," a term brought into Alaska by white men, is what certain Indian tribes in Eastern Canada called their neighbors to the north.
Jones, by the way, doesn't touch on the term "Inuit," however, some quick research revealed that "Inupiat" (IN-you-pat) is the name of one of three tribes that make up the Inuit people, making Inuit an accurate term as well. Jones' glossary does tell us that an individual member of the Inupiat tribe is called an "Inupiaq" (IN-you-pack).
This review was originally published in February 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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