Here’s a list and a review of sorts of the books that have inspired me to look north, to read, write and put boots on the ground in some of the coldest places on Earth.
The list is not ordered by preference, but the first book – Smilla – probably should be first for a variety of reasons. Please feel free to comment if you have liked, loved, or loathed any of the books, or have suggestions of your own.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
by Peter Høeg (1993)
One of the canoe guides I was working with in Canada pushed a battered copy of the American version of Smilla into my hands shortly before I flew back to England. I mainlined it all the way home. It was the first time I ever really considered Greenland as a place to visit. I was 21 years old, and I was hungry for adventure. Smilla came along at just the right time.
The blurb about the author fascinated me. Danish, a mountaineer, a fencer, a writer. Plus, I knew nothing about Denmark. Yes, I know, one might think I was Danish from my author name and my writing, but the truth is very different. My wife’s name is Petersen, and I wouldn’t meet her until 1997. By then, Smilla had already infected me with the Danish bug. Copenhagen sounded awfully cold and mysterious, while Greenland might as well have been on another planet. Little did I know that this book would set me on a collision course with Greenland, and, ultimately, encourage me to write Fenna’s story.
I’ll start by saying I am not wild about the ending of Smilla, but the characters are incredible. I remember being fascinated by Smilla and the Mechanic, and the character arc that is described for each of them.
It’s a dense read with lots of layers and it smacks of literary pretensions. Is it a thriller or is it literary fiction? I don’t actually care, for however heavy-going it might be, it captures a people, a culture, a country, served with action and, not least, temperature – I mean you can feel how cold it is.
Why should you read it? Mostly because of Smilla – an uncompromising and refined woman, capable and strong, arrogant and opinionated, but with a softness that is at once brutal and brittle. Could I be any more vague? Unlikely. Just read it.
The Call of the Wild & The Son of the Wolf
by Jack London (1903, 1900)
A review of Katabatic on Goodreads recently made my day:
I like the way Christoffer writes, it reminds me of Jack London’s books. (Review of Katabatic on Goodreads)
I read a lot of Jack London when I was studying for my GCSEs and A Levels in school. I should have been studying more and reading less, a fact reflected in my grades. But Jack London’s stories, in particular those from The Son of the Wolf, were far more interesting than my studies were ever going to be. Tales of The Malemute Kid, the description of the geography and the wilds they travelled through, the wolves, the ice, the daily tasks and chores required for survival, all these things kept me turning the pages and working my way though all of London’s books. Later, I discovered that Smoke Bellew was a humorous version of Malemute Kid, but no less exciting.
I read The Call of the Wild to Liva and Tiuri on the Yukon, and they would act out the scenes from the book, taking it in turn to play Buck and Spitz on the banks of the river. Later on our journey, we tried in vain to paddle upstream in our search for the remains of the cabin in which Jack London had wintered on in the Yukon. The cabin was elusive, but we’ll try again, one day.
White Fang is a book I promise myself I will read again each year, and each year I fail to get around to it. Maybe this year? But of all the books and stories that London has written it is To the Man on the Trail (from The Son of the Wolf) that I return to time, and time again. It is a classic adventure story. Perhaps a little dated and likely politically incorrect, but the sense of adventure shines through, as does the admiration and respect for the men who toiled in the depths of the winter in the Yukon Territory and Alaska. To the Man on the Trail became very real all of a sudden when we passed the different places mentioned in the story.
‘You’ll find a hundred pounds of salmon eggs on the sled,’ he said. ‘The dogs will go as far on that as with one hundred and fifty of fish, and you can’t get dog food at Pelly, as you probably expected.’ The stranger started, and his eyes flashed, but he did not interrupt. ‘You can’t get an ounce of food for dog or man till you reach Five Fingers, and that’s a stiff two hundred miles. Watch out for open water on the Thirty Mile River, and be sure you take the big cutoff above Le Barge.’ (Jack London, To the Man on the Trail)
It’s true, Jack London has inspired me to write similar stories, but his books also encouraged me to travel to the Yukon, to Alaska, and to move to Greenland. Maybe this year I’ll get around to reading White Fang?