Unlike many former residential school pupils, storyteller and children's author Michael Kusugak not only returned home with his language and culture intact, but has become one of the North's greatest ambassadors. Books such as Baseball Bats for Christmas and Arctic Stories recall his childhood in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, and earned him the 2008 Vicky Metcalf Award. Come summertime, 63-year-old Mr. Kusugak flies from his home in Rankin Inlet to Winnipeg to pick up his 1979 MGB convertible from winter storage before cruising as far as the British sports car will take him. The Globe and Mail spoke to him at his latest stopping point in Qualicum Beach, B.C.
Tell me about this zippy little car of yours.
I always wanted an MGB because I thought they looked so nice and fast and I think James Bond drove one. Well, I went to a few of those infamous residential schools, and the government signed something that said they would give us a whole pile of money for putting us through all that, and it happened I got a cheque just before I turned 60. I thought, I really, really want one of those cars. We picked one up in Kelowna for my 60th birthday. My wife, Geraldine, calls it my mid-life crisis.
Roof up or down?
Down. The first day we drove it - in late April - wasn't exactly warm. We drove from Kelowna to Penticton with the top down and my wife was all buttoned up. We almost died that day. When we got in it the first time, I went to brake but the car sped up and the engine revved and my wife was screaming away. Turned out the gas pedal and the brakes are so close together I was pressing them at the same time.
Is it maybe not the best car for long drives?
Oh, it's terrible. We decided to drive it from Winnipeg to Seattle. We must have been about 100 kilometres along when we heard this racket. The car was screeching, the engine was whining, there was smoke and everything. We called the CAA and they came with one of those platform trucks and drove us back to Winnipeg.
We went off again and that time we got as far as Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It broke down right in front of an auto repair shop. The following summer, we got to Edmonton before something electrical went wrong.
Any chance your wife has a different opinion about which car you should take cross-country?
She got a new Honda Civic and hasn't been in my car since. She took the Civic here to Qualicum Beach. I drove the MGB. I had the top down almost the whole way.
What's on the radio when you're coasting along the highway?
It's hard to hear it with the top down. I just enjoy looking at the scenery. It's a beautiful country we live in. Going across the Prairies, you look at the different colours of the fields and imagine flying over them and how they'd look from up there. You see purples, yellows, reds.
How many Tim Hortons do you hit on a typical trip?
Quite a number.
Most of your stories are set in the North. Have you ever been inspired to write about something you saw elsewhere in your travels?
I always think it's so much better to write about the things you know, but I am interested in all sorts of things.
I was in Dawson City, Yukon, with a group called the Science Advisory Board of the Northwest Territories. We met with an Indian tribe up there who told us half-jokingly about these mining companies that tore down a mountain looking for gold and only found $37 worth. I thought there must be a story in there somewhere. That's how my book Who Wants Rocks? came to be.
Is there a character from one of the traditional Inuit legends you relate to?
I'm fairly adventurous, so I'd say Kiviuq. He's very inquisitive. In his travels, he went all across the North and came across some strange and wonderful things. I guess that's kind of like how I am.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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