… Mom said that in Jasper there used to be two sure signs that winter was over. One was the glacier lily poking up through the snow, and the other was Doctor Byrne stepping off the train.
Icefields takes us to Jasper Alberta, where in 1898 Doctor Edward Byrne falls into an ice crevasse. While waiting to be rescued, he sees the figure of an angel; this changes the course of his life. A decade later, he finds himself back in Jasper, and he continues to return every year to the site of his accident. He becomes almost obsessed with studying the glacier, while around him a thriving tourist industry is being built. Why does he keep coming back? What is he hoping to discover?
Once this world had been on the periphery of his imagination, a place from which one returned to tell the tale. Now it has become the centre of his field of vision. And more than central: inevitable. From this vantage point, for good or ill, he believes that his life could have taken no other road.
The history of Jasper and its tourist industry, the people who come to see and tour the glaciers, is what made this book interesting to me. Edward’s story wasn’t quite enough to carry it. The book spans 25 years during which time there is a monumental rise in tourist activity, falling during the war years, then picking back up again.
Although there are some interesting historical connections to be made, one thing I found frustrating was that it was hard to tell what was based on fact and what was pure fiction. The distinction became more clear after reading this interview with Thomas Wharton about his book.
The structure of the book is well thought out. The different sections of the story correspond to the parts of an icefield. You’ll come away knowing anything you ever wanted to know about glaciers (unless you already know a lot). There are also a few literary references scattered through the book; Shelley’s Mont Blanc is mentioned, Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit to Jasper, and Agassiz’s theories on ice ages.
I decided to read this book after reading Wharton’s most recent book Every Blade of Grass. Icefields has won The Banff Mountain Book Grand Prize, the Writers Guild of Alberta Best First Book Award, and the Commonwealth Best First Novel Prize (Caribbean and Canada Region), but I have to say that I much preferred Every Blade of Grass.
13 thoughts on “Icefields by Thomas Wharton”
I was wondering about “plot?” when I read your comment “Edward’s story wasn’t quite enough to carry it.” What an interesting premise, though, to explore glaciers. I think I will consider the Blade of Grass book instead.
It was interesting – I’m glad I read it. But, there were times while I was reading that I was impatient to get to my next book, and I don’t like that feeling. I didn’t ever feel that way with Every Blade of Grass.
Oh, too bad this one didn’t quite work for you. I still think it sounds intriguing, and when I looked up Wharton after you mentioned him previously, this was the book that interested me the most. (Especially since I don’t know much about glaciers…)
Learning about the glaciers was interesting. I was thinking while I read it that it would probably be even more so for someone who lives near the area, because of the history of the tourist industry built up around the glaciers. I’ve never been there, so had trouble picturing it all. Still, I’m glad I read it. But I would still recommend Every Blade of Grass ahead of this one.
Hmm, not that sure I want to read this one.
This sounds like one I would really enjoy–sounds like quite a bit of scientific information, too!
Yes, the science and history were the parts I enjoyed the most. It is well written and well thought out, but I just found it lagging in parts. Or something. Maybe my expectations were just to high.
Sounds interesting from an historical point of view, it’s just a shame the rest of the tale didn’t work as well for you.
I also dislike having a hard time telling what’s fact and what’s fiction! If I picked this up, I’d be sure to read the interview you found first 🙂
I do wish I had read it first. He even had a fictional book added to the bibliography, which confused me until reading the interview.
This is one of my favourites, but I hadn’t read anything else of his either, and I think I was expecting something out-of-the-ordinary. It doesn’t have a traditional arc to the tale, but I think that does create a certain kind of mood – the way that we readers wander from character to character, for instance – which added to my sense of the place. I also really loved the one relationship in the story (I think you will guess the one, as it’s the same kind of thing that pulls me back to Gilbert and Anne), even though it, too, was a little unconventional (for the time). I hope the enjoy the next of his books more (I have a couple on my TBR too).
I did enjoy that relationship! I also enjoyed all the different characters who were brought into the story, and liked the fact that just reading about their lives was interesting enough. And, I guess this is why I feel like his story wouldn’t have been enough to make me want to keep reading – it was all of them together.