Sunday, January 29, 2023

Empire of Ice and Stone

Empire of Ice and Stone

by Buddy Levy

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022

412 pp: $29.99

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

As a polar drama, the 1913 Karluk story doesn’t have the celebrity status of the Shackleton Endurance saga, but it’s a no less remarkable tale.  The two major players were Captain Bob Bartlett and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  The latter purchased the Karluk, an ill-equipped brigantine, in order to explore the Beaufort Sea, and when the ship got stuck in the ice off northern Alaska, he headed to the mainland to hunt caribou, although there weren’t caribou in that part of Alaska.  The Karluk soon sank, with Bartlett playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” on a gramophone to accompany its demise.  After the crew and scientists ended up on Siberia’s Wrangel Island, Bartlett dogsledded to the mainland, then dog-sledded 700 miles to Komsomolskaya Bay, and then took a boat to Alaska.  Time passed.  One day a ship appeared off the shore of Wrangel Island.  The Karluk’s starving, emaciated, and bedraggled survivors were saved.

In Empire of Ice & Stone, author Buddy Levy takes on the Karluk story, and in order to learn about the expedition, he consulted journals, notebooks, logbooks, and various archives.  But rather than "just the facts, ma’am," he invents dialogue and his characters’ inmost thoughts.  He also keeps descriptions at a minimum, especially historical and geographical descriptions. Wrangel Island seems always to be “forbidding” and “craggy” or some variation thereof.  Levy writes that Nome, Alaska, was founded by the Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg, but not that Nome is a toponym named for several locales in Norway.  In the end, the book is like an adventure novel in which the reader eagerly turns the pages to find out who will freeze to death or starve to death next. 

And, as it happens, Buddy Levy didn’t visit any of the places in the book.  Thus he seldom sees the forest for the trees or, I should say, the dwarf shrubs.  In fact, he doesn’t see the dwarf shrubs, either.  For there’s no mention of the fact that Wrangel has a large number of endemic plants, some of which must have been good for foraging, as the island was probably the last refuge in the world for woolly mammoths (he doesn’t mention this, either).  One of the plants has a flower which brought hope to the Karluk’s despairing survivors.  Levy makes no attempt to identify the flower, only to say that it’s purple (it was probably purple saxifrage).  The survivors eat several polar bears, but there’s no reference to the fact that Wrangel has the largest density of denning polar bears of anywhere in the world.  Indeed, several of those survivors died not from eating tainted pemmican, as Levy suggests, but probably from trichinosis as a result of having eaten undercooked polar bear meat.  Yes, I know: the book is about an Arctic expedition, not the natural world.   But I dare say you can’t write about an expedition like this one without describing the environment where it takes place.  

What I’ve referred to in the previous paragraph is a common malady nowadays.  Authors who write books about the Arctic seem disinclined to go there.  Instead, they surf the web, read other books and texts, visit an archive or two, and voila! out comes their book.  Small wonder that words like “desolate,” “craggy,” “barren,” or “forbidding” are repeatedly used to describe Arctic habitats.  Here I should mention that the previous book about the Karluk expedition, Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master, suffers from the same malady as Levy’s book.  Ms. Niven didn't' visit the Arctic herself until after her book was published, and this is obvious throughout her narrative.  Certain readers might argue that these books aren’t really about the Arctic, but about human survival.  To repeat myself, you can’t write about human survival without depicting the habitat where those humans are trying to survive.

Even so, Empire of Ice & Stone is a page turner.  Bartlett’s heroism is duly noted, as is Stefansson’s self-absorbed behavior.  But if you want to read a really good book about the Karluk expedition, you should procure a copy of William Laird McKinley’s The Last Voyage of the Karluk.  McKinley, otherwise known as “Wee Willie” (he was 5’4” tall), was one of the ship’s survivors as well as one of its scientists.  What he says about Captain Bartlett, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and his own vicissitudes on Wrangel Island rings powerfully with the truth.

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Last Speaker of Bear

The Last Speaker of Bear

by Lawrence Millman

San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2022

214 pp., $18.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

I first encountered Larry Millman -- by way of a printed page -- more than forty years ago on the shelves of a bookstore in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The book was Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland; at the time, I was big on anything Irish, so I picked up the book almost without a thought. Reading it on my way home on the creaky cars of the Shaker Rapid, I was soon riveted: the narrative within was neither the "Romantic Ireland" that seems to live eternally (even though Yeats proclaimed it dead in 1913), but neither was it a mere travelogue of picturesque scenery and chatty publicans. It was more of a collection of characters, really, the plain (and not so plain) people of Ireland that he'd had chanced to meet as he tramped about. And what characters! -- among them a wandering minstrel who proclaims "After me, it'll be dead -- poetry, I mean." All of these encounters are framed by Millman's lively eye and ear, and and the end of the book I remember simply wishing there were more.

Since then, Millman has gone on to write a good long shelf-full of books, most of them connected with his wanderings in the North. In these, he has gathered yet more tales and their tellers, incorporating them into the larger fabric of his prose with the skill of a master weaver. He has long practiced his own wry art of juxtaposition, finding irony -- far more than three types of it -- in places where rugged individualists gather just outside the edges of our 'civilized' existence. In The Last Speaker of Bear, though, Millman adopts a slightly different tactic: here, the anecdotes are scattered, each on its own, without the connective tissue of a larger narrative. The result can be uneven in places; like gemstones pulled from their settings, not all of these tales have quite the same sparkle. Nevertheless, all are engaging, and quite a few shine brightly on their own, the title story among them.

This last speaker, we find, resides in Utshimassits, a since-abandoned Innu village about 200 miles north of Goose Bay in Labrador. The story goes that this elder was the lone remaining practitioner of polite conversation with bears, conducted just before a hunter kills one. It goes like this, as the hunter begins:

"My family is very hungry, Grandfather, so would it be okay if I kill you?"

"I don't mind if you kill me, but you'll have to smoke a pipe with me after you've done so."

This of course begs the question of how exactly one smokes a pipe with a dead bear, but apparently in the olden days the Innu even made special pipes just for this occasion. Unfortunately, as so often happens, poor weather unsuitable for small planes has delayed Millman's flight; the last speaker of bear has died the night before he arrives. His friend and informant, who'd told him of this man, explains that now, "we just kill bears," as he feels the few words he himself knows of the bear language are so meagre and poor that they would just be an insult to them.

It's a quintessential Larry story, as it's one that only could be told to him, and only he could tell -- his manner is impeccable, that of a raconteur's raconteur. But it's also, as are many of these tales, both funny and elegiac; it's not only speakers of bear, but ice, walrus, patrmigan, and seals that are growing scarcer, as global warming rejiggers the Northern ecosystem. At the same time, airplanes, cruise ships, and tourists -- that bane of Millman's world -- are becoming steadily more numerous.

But of course, when he wants, he can pass among them. One of my favorite stories in the book concerns an expedition cruise up the coast of Labrador on which Millman is serving as a shipboard lecturer. Hour after hour, day after day, the ice prevents the ship from anchoring for any landings, and the captain ends up continually shifting to a further goal, none of which are reached (this will be a scenario familiar to nearly anyone who's taken such a cruise). At last, even the point of disembarkation in Iqaluit becomes inaccessible, and the captain has to discharge his passengers at a distant landing, from which buses will take them back over the trackless tundra. Back in Iqaluit, Millman is approached by an old friend, who asks "So, the trip didn't go according to plan?" "Not at all," Larry replies, but with great enthusiasm. Because, for him, the travails, the detours, and the deferred plans are what it's all about. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he knows a great deal about "wandering by the way," and we are all the richer for sharing in his journeys.