Allison's Book Bag

Waiting for Unicorns by Beth Hautala

Posted on: June 19, 2015

Waiting for Unicorns is set in the unusual location of Manitoba. This is one reason I felt drawn to Beth Hautala’s debut novel. I also appreciated the relationships and themes explored in this quiet and beautiful story. Despite some minor quibbles, I found Waiting for Unicorns a poignant tale of loss and hope.

My favorite part about Waiting for Unicorns is how the main character, Talia, deals with death. Her mother has recently died of cancer. This leaves Talia and her father feeling broken. Thus, while Talia didn’t want her father to leave her for his research, it also feels of vital importance for her father to find the whales he studies. Somehow, this will help keep him together. It also becomes critical for the wishes Talia has written on scraps of paper stored in a mason jar to come true. One in particular, involving narwhals, has to happen. If they do, maybe her wishes will also allow Talia to see her mother one more time and to say a final farewell. Once her father does leave Talia for his research, it also becomes critical for him to call and visit Talia as scheduled. When this plan ends up being jeopardized, Talia found herself falling further apart, unable to deal with additional loss.

The North is a region not often portrayed in young adult literature and I enjoyed seeing it as the setting. From my limited research, it seems as if Hautala mostly gets her facts and details right about Northern Canada. The people in Churchill are a mix, some being Aboriginal hunters from the community and others being academic researchers from outside. Thus, it is appropriate for Talia’s father to have been hired to study whales there. Temperature is that of subarctic climate. Thus, it is also appropriate for Hautala to use the cold to describe both how Talia feels physically and emotionally after her mother’s death. Finally, tourism is a significant industry, drawing spectators to see natural wildlife including polar bears. It does seem however that polar bear attacks are rare, which means the attack of one on Talia’s friend seemed to serve more as a plot device intended to deepen the thematic exploration of loss than that of an actual realistic event.

Hautala notes in my interview with her that there’s little written about the Inuit and so she wanted to know more about them. From my limited research, it also seems as if Hautala mostly gets her facts and details right about the Inuit. Being a people of the land, they depend on meat for their food. Thus, many of them would be hunters and one of their main foods would be caribou. Although many Inuit do still hold to these traditional ways of life, they also live in modern homes, use snowmobiles for transportation in the winter, and in other ways depend on white man’s conveniences. I did find it interesting Hautala choose to have Talia and her father live with an Inuit woman, given that apparently they’re in the minority of the Aboriginal cultures in Churchill. The portrayal, however, of Suri seems authentic. It seems reasonable that she would serve a mix of Inuit food such as tuktu or caribou fried in fat along with Canadian food such as orange juice and toast. It’s also realistic that Suri might share Inuit lore such as that about how the narwhal were formed and to also share memories of Talia’s mom.  However, Talia’s revulsion over eating moose and caribou meat seemed a little excessive (and thereby perhaps offensive) in the light of only around 3% of Americans being vegetarian.

As with many novels, the start of The Waiting for Unicorns felt weak in contrast to the rest. To move for a summer from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Churchill, Manitoba, Talia and her father drive to Montreal. There, he sells the family truck, because one can’t drive to Churchill. Instead, Talia and her father now board an airplane that takes them all the way to Churchill. If this is a temporary move, why sell the truck? If they’re unable to take it all the way with them, why not simply fly the entire way, as apparently they did at the end of the trip? Once I got past this befuddlement, I often found myself teary-eyed at how sensitively Hautala handles the shared grief of Talia and her father.

Hautala says that she had to wrestle through a lot of bad writing and a lot of rejection before she finally told the story I needed to tell. The result is a culturally-rich tale of new landscapes, new friendships, and lots of healing moments.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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