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.