North, by Roger Hubank

The Ernest Press, 2000. ISBN 0 94815369 5

Reviewed by Lorrie Beaver Levesque

North is a novel based on the true life story of America's attempt to join the Arctic exploration race. Unfortunately, the country's ability to follow through and keep the exploration team stocked with essential food and supplies doomed them to a terrible fate. Hubank changes the names of the true life characters, but keeps intact the psychological shortcomings and personality conflicts of the leaders of the expedition; Lt. Greely becomes Lt. Parish, and the surgeon Pavy becomes Fabius in the novel. The long agonizing tragedy that befalls the expedition is honestly portrayed and moves along at a pace that does not become tiresome. Hubank also takes care to employ the technique of character journal entries within the course of the novel, which was an important aspect of the real life expedition, and provided testimony to the men's fates, long after they had succumbed to the elements.

The reader does not need to be familiar with the facts of the real expedition to enjoy this carefully constructed novel. In all honesty, however, the novel becomes more of a delight to read if one has already read Guttridge's "Ghosts of Cape Sabine," or is already acquainted with the Greely expedition history and outcome. It's like hot fudge on ice cream. It just makes it better to taste and enjoy.

All the failures of the human heart and psyche are explored in the rendering of the expedition's disintegration in the face of terrible cold and no survival rations, and the bureaucratic bumbling on the home front. Hubank employs a deft and effective touch in spending a portion of the novel on suffering at home of the character Martha Parish. Not only does it give a chance for the drier and less gripping legislative failures to be introduced into the novel, it also gives the novel a female perspective that would not normally emerge in the middle of a 19th century polar expedition. It is a welcome technique that greatly enhances the reading of this novel. Bravo to Mr. Hubank.

It's hard not to reflect upon what would have happened on many of these doomed expeditions if women had been more involved in the planning and actual packing. Less family crest silverware, and more dry socks and tea biscuits, might have been in the knapsack and caused a few of these gentlemen to actually return. But I digress.



LBL: How long did it take you to research NORTH? Did you have trouble finding historical documentation living in the UK?

RH: The first germ of an idea for `a Polar novel` appears in my notebooks, dated `September 1991`. It was sparked by a description of A.W.Greely, in Pierre Berton`s Arctic Grail, as `an irritable, insecure martinet.Though I`d no experience of Arctic explorers I had known many mountaineers, and it struck me that `an irritable, insecure martinet` would make for a highly problematic leader of any expedition.

At the time I was still teaching in the university, as well as working on another novel. Even so, I was drawn by the extraordinary circumstances of Greely`s tragic story, and I settled to read as much as I could about his expedition, and about the Arctic generally. The Greely material was difficult to find in the UK. Eventually I managed to borrow a copy of`Three Years of Arctic Service`, which I photocopied, and that provided me with a basis on which to work. (I was never able to obtain Brainard`s books, and never saw them until I was shown them on the shelf on a friend in Banff last October.)

So began the slow process of reading and note-taking. I collected whatever I could in the way of books, pictures, videos and recordings, etc - anything that might count as raw material for the Arctic. By the autumn of 1996 I had begun work on the first drafts of `North`, which was finished in 2000.

LBL: NORTH is very much a psychological tale. Was it easier to write from the viewpoint of Parish or Fabius? Also, which one of these very two different men do you feel you might have been a friend with if they lived in the present time?

RH: Yes - it is, as you say, very much a psychological tale. For that reason, Parish was much harder because so very much more detailed, since I wanted to focus on his isolation, an isolation that is partly a consequence of his role as commander, but also a reflection of his own insecurity and inadequacy as a man.

I have known a man like Parish -- stubborn, high-principled, as convinced of his rectitude as he seemed blind to his own shortcomings, I did not find it easy to get on with him. I`ve also known self-obsessed men like Fabius, single-minded, egotistical, driven by a overwhelming desire to succeed in their ambition, to the exclusion of all else. They, too, don`t make for comfortable companions.

Even so, over the years in which I was engaged in this work, I felt a growing sympathy and respect for Parish and his men, and for the reality of the lives on which my story was based, that they were more than simply pawns for me to push around in a fiction; men who had been where I have not been, and suffered what I have not suffered. That is why I dedicated the book as I did.

LBL: How long did the actual writing of NORTH take?

RH: It took about three and a half years to finish the first draft. Revising it for publication took a few more months.

LBL: Was it easier to write HAZARD'S WAY or NORTH? Why?

RH:`Hazard`s Way` was certainly easier (in so far as the writing of a novel is ever easy). The history, the settings, the attitudes and values of the characters, their speech registers, the class structure which they represented, were all very much more familiar.

`North`, on the other hand, really was a journey into the unknown. Not only were there the inevitable difficulties of handling the Arctic material, but the larger, ever-present problem entailed by the fact that `North` was essentially an American story written by a Brit, an outsider for whom the complexities of nineteenth-century American history and politics, not least the procedural tangles of Congress, might prove too daunting. Just as problematic was the unfamiliarity (for me) of what I might call the `cultural baggage` - habits of speech, ways of thinking, etc. So the work went on against a constant anxiety that I was trying to bite off more than I could chew, attempting a task that was quite simply beyond me. For a long time I didn`t know whether or not I would be able to finish the first draft.

Finally, there was a lingering uneasiness provoked by the story itself, what Barry Lopez has called `the most shameful episode in American Arctic history`. There was no way of mitigating that `shame`, for which Congress and the Administration bore a very large part of the responsibility. On the other hand, I`d no wish to write something that would seem gratuitously offensive to an American reader.

LBL: Have you been to the Arctic yourself?

RH: No. The nearest I`ve been came last October, en route for the Banff mountain book festival. We were blessed with excellent visibility, flying over the Greenland ice cap, of snow mountains rising out of a white wilderness, then Baffin Bay, and Baffin Island. I looked down on all this with a wondrous feeling that there, at last, was the place where I`d been living in imagination for the last few years.

Then, in Banff, I met people like Jerry Kobalenko, who`d really been there. (Jerry`s book on Ellesmere Island, `The Horizontal Everest`, published last year, won the Travel and Adventure award at the Banff festival. Incidentally, `North` - though hardly fitting into any of the categories - won a Special Jury Award at the festival.)

LBL: I was pleased with your inclusion of Martha Parrish's character in the novel and her own trial by fire. It was an excellent way to place the dry facts of the desertion of the expedition by American legislators in the framework of her suffering and worry. Was it more difficult, as a male writer, to write from the female perspective?

RH: Yes, it was. I knew I had to find a model, not so much of the woman herself (at least, to start with), but of the kind of community which had `produced` her, so to speak. In this I was lucky, finding in the university library a wealth of stuff about Amherst and the Dickinson family. This gave me a background out of which to construct Matty Stevens` home in Massachusetts. Matty herself began to emerge out of the Dickinson sisters - intelligent, principled, morally courageous, of independent mind, tho` constrained by the patriachal power structures of her time: not a kind of prototype feminist (that wouldn`t have done at all) but a woman whose isolation, suffering and powerlessness in some way parallels that of her husband, yet who draws on her own inner resources to maintain an essential contact with him (in spite of their separation) and eventually to come to his aid.

I needed to know what she looked like, and again I was lucky to come across a picture in a magazine of Thomas Eakins` portrait of his wife, Susan (I think it`s now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), slight, plain, the small, compact face with its candid gaze directed at the onlooker, the large hands `she never knew what to do with` folded in her lap - the very image I was looking for. There was Matty. I tore out the page from the magazine, and pinned it above my desk, to preside over my labours. I used to talk to her when I was stuck. She`s there now as I write this.

LBL: Have you always been fascinated with arctic exploration? Did it start, as with many of us, with the story of the Franklin expedition?

RH: No, my interest was first directed towards the other end of the globe. For me the Franklin story came later. As a boy I was roused, inevitably perhaps, by the story of Scott`s last expedition to the South Pole, and by Shackleton. (I have a friend who was at Dulwich, Shackleton`s old school, where they keep the `James Caird`, the whale-boat in which he made that extraordinary journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia). Much later I read Roland Huntford`s book on Amunsden, which did such damage to the Scott legend in this country. It was then that I realised what potential the conflicts and tensions, and the clash of egos involved in Arctic exploration might have for a novelist like myself.