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Under a Pole Star


Under a Pole Star

With an Indian Summer upon us, what could be more refreshing than a tale of Arctic exploration? Author Stef Penney set her first novel, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, in the bleak frozen landscape of northern Canada and won the prestigious Costa Book of the Year award in 2006. With the fan on full blast, I began to read her third, UNDER A POLE STAR, shivering in happy anticipation of another voyage into the ice.

The novel opens with a modern odyssey: the press junket. It’s 1948, and Flora Cochrane, a now-elderly explorer popularly known as the Snow Queen, is on a plane bound for the North Pole --- part of an American publicity stunt involving scientists, a TV camera crew and a magazine writer. This young journalist’s interview questions trigger a flashback to 1883. Flora, the 12-year-old daughter of a Scots whaling captain, is going to northern Greenland with her father after her mother’s death. This is the first of several journeys during which a lone girl on a ship full of men (shocking in those days) makes the acquaintance of a country simultaneously cruel and beautiful. She also befriends Inuit (then called Eskimo) children her own age and learns their language.

At 18, a child no longer, Flora becomes too much of a distraction and temptation to take along. Frustrated, she goes to London to acquire a scientific education so that she might return north on her own. Women aren’t precisely welcome at the university, either; Flora’s thirst for the wild, empty landscape of her girlhood --- “the only place she has felt free” --- remains unquenched.

Flora’s longing for Greenland comes through in Penney’s peerless descriptions of this strange, lovely landscape: The freezing of the sea is “an eruption of crystal flowers; jagged white blooms…strewn across the dark ice as if there had been a frost wedding.” The air is “clear as gin,” and the pack ice closing in sounds “like a menagerie of animals in various states of distress: puppies whining peevishly, or bees swarming, or a whale groaning in agony.”

"If you are fond of boundary-shattering journeys --- geographical, sexual and scientific --- you’ll have a great ride."

The unearthly beauty of the north also seduces a young man named Jakob de Beyn, the orphaned son of Dutch immigrants in New York. The coming-of-age story of this dreamy, sensual fellow alternates with Flora’s. When a doctor friend from Jakob’s college days signs on to a voyage that will attempt to reach the Pole, he wins a place on the team, as a geologist and sometime photographer.

Do they meet? Predictably, yes, though Flora is married at that point, to a rich but twisted syphilis-ridden fellow who helps her fund and plan her expeditions. What’s less predictable is the heat of her relationship with Jakob. This is no gauzy romantic idyll; Lady Chatterley Goes to Greenland is more like it. Like the lady in that iconic erotic novel, Flora is discovering the country of the body for the first time, as her sexual experience so far has been either unconsummated or painful.

It’s daring to combine an adventure saga with an explicit account of sexual passion, and I’m not sure it works. Give Penney marks for candor. In interviews, she has said that she didn’t want to perform the novelistic equivalent of a fade-out in movies: “I get annoyed by books that are vague or misleading, or simply phallocentric, and I wanted to write a sexual relationship that I could believe.” Both of her protagonists are scientists, thoroughly intelligent, ravenously passionate individuals in a repressed era when sexual information would not be readily available, especially to women. Flora is a pioneer in more ways than one.

But her lust for Jakob threatens to overtake her lust for exploration, and sometimes it threatens to unbalance the book. At nearly 600 pages, UNDER A POLE STAR is a richly detailed saga, with a complex plot that seesaws between Flora and Jakob’s lives in England and America, and their exploits on the ice. Penney brings out the contrast between late Victorian mores and Inuit culture, as well as offering an emphatic indictment of the many ways so-called civilized people have abused indigenous populations. (Lester Armitage, leader of Jakob’s first expedition, returns to New York from a subsequent voyage with several Inuit he hopes will make his ventures newsworthy. All but one sicken and die.) The structure does turn a bit baggy in places. The framing device of Flora in 1948 isn’t much of an asset, and although I was touched by the love affair, I thought Jakob a lot less vivid than Flora --- yet he is given almost equal space.

Flora, though, is marvelous. Maybe her feminist sensibility is almost too modern (turns out there were no actual female Arctic explorers to base her on), but I found myself nodding vigorously at a number of passages, particularly when she rails against the way she is dismissed and belittled (one journalist calls her “immoral and unwomanly”), and mourns the tension she feels between love and having “an independent purpose in the world.”

Braving an environment so extreme, so life-threatening, makes her character all the more remarkable. Both physical endurance and mental equilibrium are tested in the Arctic, and people tend to reveal their true colors. Some, like Flora and Jakob, are respectful to team members and Inuit alike, realizing that in this climate, people are literally walking on thin ice: Mutual sensitivity is essential if they are to survive. Others, like Armitage --- unscrupulous, rivalrous, bent on glory --- turn violent or go mad.

But Penney makes it clear that whatever their flaws, these early explorers, even the least likable and most desperate, had dreams, and courage, and a mystical pull toward the north that was almost as strong as the magnetism of the Pole itself. That’s the true heart of this immersive novel. If you are fond of boundary-shattering journeys --- geographical, sexual and scientific --- you’ll have a great ride.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on September 29, 2017

Under a Pole Star
by Stef Penney