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Minds of Winter

Ed O’Loughlin
House of Anansi Press

This epic narrative casts a who’s who of polar explorers: Franklin, Amundsen, Peary, Hudson. (Jack London and the Mad Trapper of Rat River also make appearances.) Meticulously researched and artfully written, O’Loughlin has created a tapestry of fictional prose that covers the history of adventure in the Arctic. The stories are linked together with the use of a fictional MacGuffin—in this case, a mysterious chronometer that was allegedly on one of Franklin’s lost ships, but inexplicably appeared in London more than a century later.

Nearly every chapter takes the reader to a new setting with a new cast, but the tyranny of the natural world dominates each character’s successes and foibles in exploration. Take Charles Hall’s 1873 Polaris expedition, when 19 crewmembers were separated from the ship and survived on a drifting ice floe for six months. The party’s survival was contingent on shrewd decision-making (burn the boats for firewood or keep them for the slim possibility that an escape to solid land would be possible? and challenging interpersonal relationships.

This is but one example of a true tale that O’Loughlin draws upon to create a spellbinding narrative of Arctic exploration. The chronometer finds its way into every story. With its use, the novel is both a historical reflection of Arctic exploration and a captivating modern mystery.

For the well-read armchair polar adventurer, this book will provide an entertaining take on familiar characters and stories. For those with little knowledge of polar exploration, it will pique interest and prompt a further look into the dozens of historical names referenced within. Either way, read this book with Wikipedia close at hand—you will want to investigate the anecdotes, legends, tragedies, and dramas that Minds of Winter presents.

Minik: The New York Eskimo

Kenn Harper
Steerforth Press

This is the true story of six Inuit taken by Captain Robert Peary from Greenland to New York City’s Museum of Natural History in the late 19th century. Minik is fraught with colonial prejudice, but historian Kenn Harper interprets the tale with elegance and compassion. His narrative does more than represent the experiment as the inhumane and exploitive pseudo-science it was, he offers insight into turn-of-the-century American society and its admiration and reverence for polar exploration.

Harper allows readers to create their own opinions of Peary and Minik’s plight. The objective discussion of Peary and his relationship with the Inuit as well as the portrayal of Minik, an Inuk boy who came of age in an unfamiliar environment, will leave readers pondering the reasons for, and value of, Arctic exploration. Peary, best known for “discovering” the North Pole in 1909, certainly made many mistakes, chief among them treating people like scientific specimens needed for observation. But Harper’s narrative reminds the reader of the political climate in which Peary lived and the pervasive curiosity of the unknown. Peary’s kidnapping of the Inuit was not intended to be malicious, but the horrors of the incident (such a-s the death of Minik’s father and the subsequent refusal of the museum to return his father’s body to the boy) make it difficult for modern readers to understand the story from an objective point-of-view. Harper does a stunning job of directing the reader to carefully ponder the social and political context in which the story takes place.

Voice in the Wild

Laurie Sarkadi
Caitlin Press

This is a highly personal memoir written by a journalist, mother, wife and adventurer who makes her home in the Canadian subarctic outside Yellowknife. Although not a tale of Arctic exploration in a historical sense, Voice in the Wild is a robust commentary on what it means to eke out an existence on the margins of civilization. The first-person narrative portrays the cosmopolitan and educated sensibilities of a woman who has chosen to live a life that is influenced by the wildness of her habitat.

Each chapter is based on the observation of an animal in its natural environment and lessons gleaned therein. The final chapter neatly summarizes the book’s theme of awareness and respect for the natural world. In it, Sarkadi describes her frequent encounters with wolves near her house. At first, she is unsure and often afraid of them, but as the seasons pass she accepts and starts to revere their presence. Solitude is a frequent companion for anyone who chooses to live in the North. As a writer, Sarkadi craves solitude but explains how the feeling of isolation can often be scary. In one particularly fearsome incident, she falls while skating alone on the bay in front of her house. The fear she feels after nearly injuring herself is tempered by the sighting of a lone wolf—whom she had previously named Sabrina. As she limps home on the ice, Sabrina keeps pace, albeit at a comfortable distance. Later, she reflects on how she felt safe in Sabrina’s presence. She was never alone at all.

Sarkadi’s stories, told through the use of animals as metaphor for life’s trials, will be an inspiration to anyone who has ever pondered a life at the edge of civilization.