The title for Minds of Winter comes from The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, which I thought was fitting. Most of the characters in this book are drawn to the polar regions of the world. No sooner have they gotten back from an expedition and they’re off again, despite the very real dangers. Many press on even after near-death experiences. I can’t help but admire them, and is perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy reading about them.
Minds of Winter is filled with information on polar exploration; the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The amount of research must have been incredible. The book is divided up into sections, starting with Sir John Franklin and Captain Crozier in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, and ending with Captain Hugh Morgan at an airforce base on Baffin Island in the 1950s. Other non-fcitional characters include Charles Francis Hall, Joseph Bellot, Robert Scott, Lawrence Oates, Roald Amundsen, and Cecil Meares. And of course the Mad Trapper of Rat River, “Albert Johnson”. There’s also a chapter narrated by Ipiirviq/Ebierbing/”Eskimo Joe”, a widely traveled Inuit guide and explorer.
Interspersed with the historical accounts of the explorers is a present day thread. Nelson and Fay have come to Inuvik, NWT for different reasons; Nelson to visit his brother, and Fay to look for clues about her vanished grandfather. They meet accidentally at the airport, and soon discover that there may be an historic connection between them.
I have no problem with Nelson and Fay’s part of the story. It definitely needs to be there. But I couldn’t help but feel like they were just tokens. As characters on their own, they weren’t interesting to me; they were only useful as ways of discovering new information. But I did enjoy reading about the setting of Inuvik and surrounding area. Take a look at this community greenhouse!
Each section of the book is fascinating and informative on its own (as well as the maps provided at the beginning of each), but together they make up part of an even more satisfying puzzle of a story. At times I found it hard to keep all the characters and story-lines straight, and often found myself flipping back to previous chapters. (I found it worked best to read each section without interruptions.) But it’s well worth it for readers who enjoy a challenging read, or who are interested in historical fiction.
Amundsen, who had dreamed all his life of claiming new lands for his new country, had been dreaming of something that did not exist. This was his last expedition, and he spent it sitting on a chair and staring out of a plastic window. Another first for Amundsen, thought Fay, turning away from the computer screen: that’s how we all do our exploring now.
While I was reading, two very different books kept coming to mind. The first, most obvious one, is The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. Barrett’s story takes place shortly after the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, when ship after ship were being sent to the Arctic to find clues/survivors/remains.
The second is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, the 2016 Giller Prize winner. Both books cover an impressive amount of material, and I’ve seen the words “scope” and “ambition” used to describe both. Also, in both books, the historical parts of the book are anchored by the thread from the present. However, Minds of Winter doesn’t pack the emotional punch that Thien’s book does. I didn’t feel as attached to O’Loughlin’s characters as I did to Thien’s. Minds of Winter feels more information-packed, and like putting together a puzzle. One that I’m still not sure I have figured out.
But Minds of Winter is a marvellous journey. It takes us to many out-of-the-way places on this earth. Here is a description of the town of Stromness, Orkney that I particularly like:
The little town of Stromness turns its back on the harbour from which it was born. Grey stone houses face a single long street, showing blind gables to the sea. Bewteen the houses, narrow alleys sneak down to the private piers and slips that are hidden behind them, as if the sea were a family secret which everyone knows but no one acknowledges.
And it brings to life the people who have risked their lives for the opportunity to increase our knowledge and expand our maps.
No one replied to him. And in that silence Bellot was seized by a queer kind of vertigo, an inward spinning and trembling. He saw at last that this journey might prove treacherous in ways he had not previously understood. Well, he would chart his islands carefully. He would check and recheck his instruments, take diligent temperatures and bearings, be doubly and trebly sure of his path by ship and boat and sledge. And he would resist in himself and in others that siren’s lure of empty fame, the lust to have one’s name attached to some cape or frozen sound. His journal would be his scientific Bible, his instruments his Redeemers. They would guide him through the dark.
Review at The Arctic Book Review: “And so it is that the protagonist of this book, in one sense, is neither Nelson nor Fay nor any of the many far-faring men and women whose peregrinations perturb the incompletely-explored world — it is we ourselves. We are the ones who must struggle to render meaning, must weigh and measure the value of many lives, must chart our own course through the narrative labyrinth.”
Review at 108zen Books: “O’Loughlin’s vision of the scope of this topic is formidable and where it lacks – frustratingly – in depth, it does console with terrific prose. What may be unforgivable, depending on the level of sustain attention training the reader has, is his compulsive need to throw in everything, and the kitchen sink.”
Review at The Irish Times: “The men pitch themselves against the sublime. The women wait. The men seek out loneliness; the women have pickets of solitude set about them.”
Review at the Quill & Quire: “O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery – or really several mysteries – without any solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided.”