Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Lines in the Ice

Lines in the Ice: Exploring the Roof of the World

by Philip Hatfield

Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Over the years, the staff here at the Arctic Book Review have seen more than our share of large-format pictorial books about the Arctic, its explorers, and inhabitants. Yet until now, no single book has so richly brought together all the historical, cultural, and geographical aspects of the frozen zone in quite the way that Philip Hatfield's Lines in the Ice manages. From Hakluyt's charts in the sixteenth century to the very latest in digital maps, we see here, in  panoramic procession, the full panoply of our predilection with the Earth's vast, yet far from trackless northern regions.

Part of this is by design; the book is, in essence, an extended, expanded catalogue of an exhibition of the same name at the British Library, whose resources in this, as in other areas of visual culture, are enormous. The differences between this and your typical exhibition book are, however, significant; not only does each image or group of images receive an astute curatorial commentary, but these individual sections are woven, with considerable care, into a larger narrative which goes well beyond the usual scope of a simple exhibition. Hatfield's text is, in essence, a series of micro-histories which illustrate the macro-history of our human encounters with, and conceptions of, the Arctic. This approach lends itself to casual browsing, but repays the reader who undertakes a further journey with richer rewards.

There are many highlights: woodcuts from Kaladlit Okalluktuallait (Greenland Legends, 1859); color plates from Gerrit de Veer's 1598 account of William Barents' voyages, William Scoresby's etchings of individual snowflakes, and full-page plates from 1850's Illustrated Arctic News. Many of these will be familiar to Arctic aficionados, but there are also some quite striking images that have seldom been reproduced before, or so well: a double-page image of the wearable inflatable "Halkett Boat"; a three-color map from Maxim Gorky's book extolling the promise of the White Sea--Baltic Canal; Rockwell Kent's lithographic frontispiece to Salamina; or Moses Pitt's illuminated maps of the "North Pole" and Lapland from his 1680 English Atlas. For myself, always looking for Franklin-related images, I was delighted to see three pages from my friend John Harrington's hand-illuminated journals of his Franklin searches in the 1990's. The book concludes, indeed, with the golden sonar image of HMS "Erebus," as she was discovered by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists in 2014 -- a fitting reminder of the limits of human endeavor, and yet also of the value of human curiosity.

In short, Hatfield's book offers everything the armchair explorer might want, but it does not hold back from showing the uglier side of the Arctic: the disruption of the lives of its native peoples, the exploitation of its natural resources, or its place as the site of numerous Soviet-era prison camps and gulags (see the White Sea--Baltic Canal above). Along the way it provides, for a region too often regarded as blank, cold and monotonous, a rich and fully-dimensional counterpoint: these lines in the ice are our lines, and its histories are as germane to our own modern identity as those of any of the Earth's more temperate regions.