The Legend of Lightning and Thunder by Paula Ikuutaq; illustrated by Jo Rioux

Paula Ikuutaq’s retelling of the Inuit Legend of Lightning and Thunder opens with a celebration. It is spring, and Inuit people gather together in camps to sing, to dance, and to feast: to share their happiness with each other. Two orphaned siblings, however, are not so happy. A girl and her younger brother have traveled a long way to join the camp, but are shut out of the festivities:

The children were very hungry. They looked longingly at the fresh caribou being shared. But when they approached, they were told that there was not enough food for them.

Desperate and too hungry to travel further, the siblings steal hunks of caribou meat and wolf them down. Still hungry, they search the other families’ bags. They find no more food, so search for toys to distract them from their hunger. The girl finds a piece of hairless caribou skin, which she waves in the air and beats with her hand to make sounds. The boy finds a piece of flint and a rock, and strikes them together to make sparks. When the brother realizes that the dances are over and their thefts will be uncovered soon, the sister knows they must hide or they will be punished. The boy suggests nine animals they could turn into, but the girl rejects each one and concludes that the only safe place is the sky. So they flee into the sky with their toys, and that, concludes an elder to her audience of children on the final page, is why we have thunder and lightning – because these orphans were neglected.

The orphans are never identified by name or age, although the sister is two years older than her brother. The illustrations portray them as approximately ten and eight years old, give or take a few years. The story is told in third-person narrative, and on the final page the reader meets the narrator who for the first time uses the word “we.” The illustrations depict this narrator as an elderly Inuit woman in traditional dress, concluding her tale before five children (three girls, two boys) also in traditional dress. The illustrations pick up on this framing device quite well. This last page is a doublespread: on the left is an illustration of lightning streaking towards the ground outside of a teepee, while on the right page the elder and children are given little background so that the reader’s focus is drawn to their faces instead. The texture of the small amount of visible background hints that these characters are seated within the teepee. The illustrations here also hint that, as this tale explains the cause of thunder and lightning, the demonstration of these phenomena outside the teepee was the reason for the elder to tell her tale. This lends the story a strong sense of people and place.

The illustrations pick up on the setting and cultural context (one woman has facial tattoos, a subtle detail) and emphasize the natural setting. When the orphans consider how they could escape, the animals they consider becoming appear as shadows, looming over the two in a visual representation of how trapped the siblings feel. The appealing graphic novel illustration style adds to the emotional as well as natural landscape of the story. When the orphans are unable to find more food, for instance, the sister is drawn gnawing on her own hair in hunger and frustration.

The sister, as the elder of the two, is more decisive and the text states that her brother always obeys her. The illustrations depict the sister a few times in distinctly nurturing-mothering postures. The brother, also has agency: he suggests ideas, notices the setting sun, and initially objects to her plan to flee into the sky. The text and illustrations work together to create a believable close sibling relationship. It is slightly surprising, that the tale is called The Legend of Lightning and Thunder, which gives lightning (the brother) primacy of place, when most of the text suggests the reverse, since it is the sister who has a more active role – she finds her “toy” first, directs their course of action, and leads her brother into the sky.

The Legend of Lightning and Thunder is a lovely retelling that reveals a great deal about Inuit culture’s emphasis on caring for everyone, regardless of status; the book is a pleasure to look at and to read.

This review is adapted from my original review, which appeared in CM, the Canadian Review of Materials. 

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