The Inuit have a nearly vaudevillian take on what happened to Noah and his ark in the Arctic Circle. Of the multiple versions, most include the ark getting frozen in ice, the Inuit asking whether Noah needs help, whether they can burn the boat’s wood as fuel, or whether they can eat one of the strangely spotted, long-necked animals onboard. Noah’s reactions are not good. He has temper tantrums, throws animal dung onto the heads of the Inuit, beats them with a broomstick. He won’t eat the animals, and soon his family begins to either starve, turn into seals, or suffer under the spells of a shifty shaman. It is hard not to root for the Inuit, especially when they say things to Noah like “Stop complaining. We’re not making you get rid of our dog’s fleas.”

Howard Norman, a non-native himself, spent the autumn of ’77 in Churchill, Manitoba, recording these “first-contact” stories alongside Helen Tanizaki, a Japanese translator and fellow interloper. Like the memoir itself, a pocket-size gem, Helen is a small but powerful character who prays to see harlequin ducks, records Inuit choking stories, and studies the useful melancholy of poet Ryunosuke Akutagawa. She’s as odd a terrain as the Arctic.

While pertinent questions of cultural ownership are bandied about, the book’s strength is in how it checkerboards between the mythical Noah stories and the reality of a friendship intensified by both environment and Helen’s impatient stomach cancer—a proximity to death that makes their Arctic life painfully beautiful.