One of the other books that I picked up while in Helsinki was Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, by Piers Vitebsky. (US paperback coming in December.) He’s an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, and the reindeer people are his research specialty. The book, however, is an engrossing synthesis aimed at a general audience. More than that, though, it’s a personal account of living with nomads, clashes of cultures (ancient, Soviet and post-Soviet) and vivid personalities, all played out in a beautiful and harsh land. I picked up the book in part because I had just missed meeting some reindeer people when I was in northern Mongolia a few years back, and I wanted to learn what their way of life was all about.
I got much more: how reindeer are partially domesticated, what the coming of Soviet power meant to the far North, how people are surviving its ebb, how reindeer migrate, what Arctic cold means in practical terms, to name just a few. Vitebsky writes well, he’s chosen interesting ground to cover, he can sketch people, relate key anecdotes and sustain narratives about their conflicts. Layer upon layer, like the clothing the Eveny wear in winter, Reindeer People envelops the reader, imparting something of those distant lands.