Explain how the writer creates tension and suspense in this extract.

The Kettle on the Boat

In this short story, Qissunguaq, a six-year-old Inuit girl, is going out with her family.

It is morning. Papa is loading some bags onto our little boat. 

I ask him where we are going. He says we are going to the other side of the lake. 

“Why are we going to the other side of the lake, Papa?” He doesn’t answer me.

“Little girls ask too many questions,” he says. Mama is taking down the curtains. There are two cracks in the window. I ask again. “Mama? Why are we going to the other side of the lake?” Mama hides her face in the curtains. Something inside me knows something……They often don’t take girls out in boats. 

It is cold, I am bundled up. My cheeks are frozen. The motor is going put-put-put… We are going somewhere. It is a special day. This should be fun, but it does not feel like fun in my belly. I want to ask Mama now where we are going. I want to ask Mama now where we are going but I don’t because Papa is cross. Mama is busy keeping the boxes straight against the rocking of the boat.. The curtains are in a bag… Now I can see the shore a long way away, and I can see three houses, they are wood. There are no people. I look at the shore because Mama is looking at the shore. Then I look back at Mama. She is holding her kettle on her knee, holding it tight with her mittens… She is holding it, hunched over, and her lips are moving…The boat comes to the jetty, Papa throws a rope to a man…We go up the ladder. Papa and I, we go up the ladder. There is weed on the lower steps. It slips my feet and he holds my hand. He has a bag round his shoulders. At the top I look back into the boat. I wait for Mama, but she does not come. She is not looking at me. She is holding the kettle, looking back over the water. There is the woman from across the lake. I look up at Papa. I cannot see him properly even though he is close and I can smell his Papa smell. He gives my hand to the woman. I have mittens on, but her hand is hard, cold. Papa gives the bag to the man. I say, “Papa…?“. “These people will look after you,” he says. 

Vanessa Gebbie


“The Kettle on the Boat” is a fictional narrative that uses the perspective of a young Inuit girl to describe the most crucial moment in her life – the moment of separation from her parents. The child presents an interior monologue to step by step produce the range of emotions that she feels from curiosity to apprehension, to excitement mixed with anxiety, and eventually fear of the unknown.

Even though Gebbie presents the description in a very simple manner, readers are still able to visualize the mental state of the Inuit girl vividly. The writer uses present tense to describe things as they are happening with an unexaggerated tone. This comments on the writer’s characterization skills, as she is able to bring out the simplicity of the childish language. This use of tone allows readers an unadulterated and raw image of what is actually going on, where the child’s innocence evokes sympathy within readers. The writer also employs use of sensory language to build up the varying emotions felt throughout the text by the girl. Inside fear is highlighted with the help of tactile sense, “My cheeks are frozen” – where it is clear that the numbness of the cheeks is not from the atmosphere, but rather the numbness that builds up with fear of a direful outcome. The child is unable to assign the cause of these changes in feeling with it’s proper term because of her lack of experience in this world – another indication of the pure innocence that this child contains within herself. The writer produces the perfect characterization of a child that is yet to encounter life. She constantly registers these bodily alterations in the simplest way possible, “… but it does not feel like fun in my belly” – where the sixth sense of something being utterly wrong is described in a child-like language and when the moment of grief with tears weling up in her eyes is presented through the simplest statement– “I cannot see him properly” – highlights her frightened, helpless and perplexed realization of the reality, additionally making readers sympathise with her for having to experience such a terrifying ordeal.

The writer’s brilliant characterization skill is further brought to attention by the narrator’s parents. The mother, an instinctive area of comfort for a child, is presented as a silent sufferer. Even though no words are heard from her, the mother presents her language within her actions. When the child receives no valid answer from her father, she turns to her mother, but again finds no resolution. However, the child is able to comprehend her mother’s body language, i.e. her busying herself with the curtains and paying no attention to her indicate her desperate attempts at turning e face away from reality. We see this reliability throughout where the child continuously turns to her mother to guide her reaction, “Then I look at the shore because Mama is looking at the shore.” The mother is clearly in a near state of breaking down, and her search for little diversions, such as holding ‘her kettle’, ‘taking down the curtains’ and ‘keeping the boxes straight’. Regardless how she tries to hide it, her mute suffering radiates through her little chores, reminding readers that even though she was giving up her child, she was a mother after all and the loss of her child will affect her deeply. The father, nonetheless, presents a strict and determined character, restraining his sentiment on the loss of his daughter to do what needs to be done. Yet, the fatherly affection that lies within him still hints at us when he answers the narrator’s questions using third person, “Little girls ask too many questions.” This signifies that he is too latching on evasions escape the reality of inevitable separation. This attitude is extended by small actions of his, such as holding on her daughter’s hand when she falls, presenting the protective nature of a father.

The writer inputs a sense of realism when pointing out the ‘two cracks in the window’. In the midst of all the confusion, this observation seems almost random but it signifies the human brain that leaps on everything around oneself when in a state of total turmoil. In a literary observation, however, these cracks hold extensive meaning, regarding the separation of the child with her parents; the separation of family; and the toll of poverty that a family has to give up their child. Another symbolization lies within the kettle that the mother holds on to, and that is also mentioned in the title. The kettle represents home, in all it’s most desirable sense. It represents the warmth and comfort of it; the feeling that everything was going to be okay. The mother holding on to it presents the desperate clinging on hope to soothe her. Repetition in certain sentences capture the heightening of the fear factor in the child. The writer also presents certain areas of foreshadow, such as the stark contrast of feeling between the kettle and the ‘hard, cold’ hand of the woman that is to take her. This acknowledges that the transition of life will not be easy on the child, who in such a massive crossroad of her life ‘slips (her) feet’ after encountering the a completely impersonal identity who was her new ‘mother’.

Overall this text gives us, the general reader, an idea of a contemporary issue of family separation, that most Inuit tribes are inclined to face due to colonization and other factors. This brings about the most relatable kind of tragedy, that all of us, as humans will have to face eventually: being separated from our loved ones, be it for death or an economic factor. Being a writer from the mid-20th century, Gebbie presents her writing in an unexaggerated and modern way, but makes it relatable for the general reader. This highlights a significant issue, while simultaneously making readers realize of the inevitable loss of love.

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