Polar Opposites: A Review of Two Frigid Books


Ashley Shelby by Erica Hanna.

SP station


By chance, I read two books about cold climates back-to-back. In some ways they are opposites, but in more ways they are similar, and both are good reads.

The reason why I am spending the fleeting Minnesota summer reading books about cold places is something you’ll have to ask my psychologist (if I had one). Maybe it’s just that it’s “safer” to read cold books during a warm summer. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them during the winter. It’s cold enough here then! That’s the best reason I’ve got for you.

The books are “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” by Blair Braverman and “South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby.

Ways the books are opposite: Braverman’s book is nonfiction – a memoir set in northern climes like Norway and Alaska. Shelby’s book is fiction and is set in Antarctica. So we have opposite genres and opposite geography.

Ways the book are similar: They are both written by Midwestern women. Braverman now lives in Wisconsin and Shelby lives in Minnesota. They’re also both about women who have put themselves into challenging situations, socially and physically.

Braverman, a California native, traveled to Norway as a high school exchange student, and later as a folk school student, and still later as a museum curator of sorts in an isolated town there. She also lived on a glacier in Alaska, offering dogsled rides as part of a tourist business.

She chose Norway in high school to pursue her love of cold places, but had a bad experience (well, several bad experiences) with her host family father that made her fear men and question her own mettle. To prove her mettle, she later enrolled in the folk school to learn how to train sled dogs and survive outdoors in the North.

She writes, “What I feared most was men, and what I feared for was my body, and yet my body wanted men, and there was no answer for any of it. No, that wasn’t right. There was an answer for some of it. And that answer, I felt certain, was somewhere in the north, if I would only go and find it.”

The folk school is a community unto itself where she must prove herself and earn the respect of her teachers and fellow students. She learns her crafts well enough to later on get the job in Alaska, which is another isolated community encapsulated by and encamped on a glacier. This is where the book gets its title – the workers refer to the glacier as the “ice cube” and newbies are welcomed to the hard and challenging life on the “goddamn ice cube.”

(As an aside, this reminds me of when I used to work on Isle Royale National Park, which is located on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. We referred to it as “The Rock.”)

It’s here she has her first relationship with a man, but when things start to get difficult between them, he retaliates emotionally and physically, and makes her living situation in the camp very uncomfortable.

Eventually, Braverman makes her way back to Norway again and helps out the keeper of a general store and local historical museum. Much of the book centers around conversations of the shop regulars, who gather for coffee. Even here, Braverman is isolated and feels she must prove her usefulness to the locals.

“South Pole Station” centers on the story of Cooper Gosling, an artist who earns a fellowship to spend time and paint at the South Pole. Like Braverman, Gosling and most of the other characters in “South Pole Station” put themselves in the situation because, as one character aptly states, “We’re all here because of some shit.”

They are fighting personal battles along with elemental battles. Gosling’s battle is with the suicide of her brother. When they were young, they both used to love reading about polar explorers and made up imaginary games centered around their exploits.

Gosling’s battle almost costs her her life when she walks out into the elements in a drunken stupor. But in the end, the polies all gather around her and help her pay homage to her brother at the bottom of the world in a most fitting way.

The author does a great job describing the various social cliques that develop at the South Pole. You have the beakers, who are the scientists, and the nailheads who are the maintenance crew, etc. Like Braverman in her situations, Gosling must earn her place in the social system and in the hearts of the other polies in order to survive.

The books are both interesting reads. I gave them 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. And although they are set at opposite ends of the world their major themes are eerily alike.