Shiver me timbers

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

Brrrrr, this is a chilly book. Each time a character put on his sealskin kamiks, muskrat hat, wolfskin mittens and otter pelt coat I buttoned another cardigan toggle and shivered. It’s a book that gets you down to the marrow.

The compass of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter points north by northnorth. Up and up it goes, drawn by husky dogs towards the North Pole, chillier and chillier by degrees, frostbitten, snow-blind but determined. It follows three centuries of explorers of the North West Territories, each generation on its own frozen adventure: to find the NorthWest passage, to recover an ice-bound ship, to reach the Pole, to stake a flag, to fly reconnaissance, to restore an antique chronometer, stolen and stolen again, to Greenwich, to find a brother who has disappeared into endless Arctic night.

Wolves block paths, ice flowers bloom inside the walls of cabin-fevered shacks, snow preserves bodies that never turn to skeletons, ice floes drift into open water and ink pots must be thawed inside clothes before the ship’s log can be written. In one chapter we make it as far south as the Orkneys and it feels positively balmy. When a pilot gives his name to a new island he reads a christening prayer: ‘God bless her and all who freeze on her.’ Freezing to death is a mercy. That at least is quick. Scurvy, frostbite and paraffin-lamp madness are slow killers.

Ships are pincered by ice that will not thaw even in summer. The sailors know when they are ice-trapped. There is a sound like ‘giant claws scraping both sides of the ship’. The polar light is beautiful, but when you haven’t seen new grass, a fresh orange or a woman since Greenland, it starts to play tricks. ‘You lose your bearings, and all sense of distance, then see a friend across the way, large as life, waving his arms at you. But when you approach him he turns into a bird and flies away, leaving you more lost than ever.’

Don’t be put off by the early ‘1841’ chapters, suffering from a bad case of the Georgette Heyers: ‘At the head of the line stood Sophia Cracroft, fanning herself with her dance card, not because she was hot but to conceal the fact that her hand was a-tremble’. Once that’s out of the way, it’s full steam ahead with seal-clubbing, bear-hunting and gold-prospecting. It is thrilling Boys’ Own, Hornblower stuff. O’Loughlin’s research took him out of libraries and archives and onto the Arctic ice. It’s not every acknowledgments page that thanks a local guide for his ‘knowledge, his contacts and his snow-

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