Skip to content

How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia

May 11, 2020

Fire CountryVictor Steffensen was on country with Elder George Musgrove (Poppy). They were standing in a small community of boxwood trees with thick, dry grass. ‘I’m gonna light the grass now,’ said Poppy, ‘like the old people used to do.’

Poppy ripped a long piece of bark off a nearby stringybark tree, lit it and “walked through the boxwood patch in a repetitive, figure eight type movement. He was almost skipping as he dragged the bark along, making the fire follow him around. … I watched the fire go higher and the smoke fill the space around him until I couldn’t see him anymore. There was nothing but fire in front of me, but it was only seconds before it started to calm down. Then he reappeared in the middle of the fire, walking over the flames with his bare feet … the fire soon trickled out, burning a perfect circle that outlined that little patch of boxwood country.”

This was the beginning of Steffensen’s education in Indigenous fire management.

Cultural burns are cool, gentle burns, done at the right time for that type of country, reducing fuel while preserving the ecosystem and ensuring there is a habitat for every species. The fire must be lit “in the right spot so that the fire introduces itself to the land slowly.”

Cultural burns require a deep knowledge of vegetation types and the ability to read the country and let it tell you what it needs. Different types of country will be burnt at different times of the year. Earlier burns provide fire breaks for later burns. Annual burns are needed, otherwise the fuel builds up and the fire gets too hot.

The Western approach is based on a fear of fire and trying to suppress it from the land altogether by fire bans, land clearing and hazard reduction or back burning. There is now plenty of evidence that these methods are counterproductive and result in destructive bushfires. “The country is suffering because no one knows how to look after the fire anymore.”

Steffensen’s teachers were Poppy and another Elder, Tommy George (TG). Poppy and TG were awarded honorary doctorates by James Cook University in recognition of their deep knowledge.

Steffensen is a descendant of the Tagalaka people. He  is the co-founder of the National Indigenous Fire Workshops which have been run throughout the Eastern states. He has also connected with First Nations people in California, Canada and the Sami people of Northern Finland.

Fire Country is hard to put down. What drove me to keep reading was Steffensen’s passion and his dream to help Australians live better and safer lives through the wisdom of the Elders. Their knowledge can be a key part of our response to climate change.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

May 1, 2020
Ann_Alcock_A_Line_of_Brolgas

A Line of Brolgas (Photo by Ann Alcock)

Tara June Winch is a masterful storyteller. In The Yield, she skilfully balances three narrative threads:

  • Albert Gondiwindi lives on country which had been stolen from his ancestors. As an old man, he was, before his death, compiling a Wiradjuri language dictionary;
  • Albert’s granddaughter August, has been overseas for ten years and has now returned home for Albert’s funeral;
  • Reverend Greenleaf, a German missionary, established Prosperous Mission, near the town of Massacre Plains, in the 1800s. (Albert lived in what was once the Mission house.)

Winch interweaves the three strands so that the reader sometimes knows more than the characters and sometimes less, which adds to suspense.

Albert and his Dictionary

Culture is borne on the wings of language. Albert is determined to recover his people’s language. He begins writing a dictionary “because the spirits are urging me to remember.”

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch

At Adelaide Writers Week, Winch described her struggle with the rules of literature: can a dictionary be part of a novel? Her approach shows that it can. Albert tells stories to illustrate the meanings of words, stories from Gondiwindi history, culture, environment and his own family. Some of his stories reveal critical plot details.

Here’s an example from Albert’s dictionary, referring to the looming destruction of Gondiwindi country by a tin-mining company:

underneath the earth – Ngunhadar-guwur What’s down there? Why those mining mob want to rip it all out and then it belongs to them? I think all those shiny things ngunhadar-guwur shouldn’t belong to anyone, only our mother. It’s strange, isn’t it? That word, fortunes. I think we don’t have that word at all.

The Missionary

The paternalistic Reverend Greenleaf treated First Nations peoples as children, but he did try to protect them from the cruelty of white people who violently enslaved both adults and children. When August finally reads Greenleaf’s story, she imagines him “trying to protect those ancestors at the same time as punishing them.”

The Main Protagonist – August

August had fled overseas in a futile attempt to escape her own trauma.  Now she is home for the funeral, and feeling “like my whole life I haven’t really been me.”

With the unscheduled appearance of dancing brolgas at Albert’s farewell, the emotional intensity ramps up.

With her hands flat on the dry dirt and her eyes blinded with tears, she felt as if she was back home, back on the land she belonged to. At the same time, she thought this was the saddest place on earth.

From this point, halfway through the novel, it is almost impossible to stop reading, as August discovers how much she cares about her family and her country. She searches for Albert’s dictionary and joins other family members in a desperate last-minute attempt to gather evidence for a native title claim and stop the mining company. Seldom am I affected by a fictional character as much as I was by August.

The Yield is a passionate cry for the preservation of First Nation languages, which communicate what English fails to say and carry the evidence of advanced civilisations before the invasion.

Tara June Winch took ten years to write The Yield. At Adelaide Writers Week, she said she felt like a plasterer who has learnt to build a whole house.

What a beautiful house she has built.

[Note: Whispering Gums has a thoughtful review of  The Yield here]

 

 

 

A Kamchatka Story – or is it?

April 1, 2020

Koryaksky Volcano towers over Petropavlovsky-Kamchatsky, the only city on Kamchatka. (Photo: Kuhnmi, CC)

Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, 2019

Kamchatka is a large peninsula in east Russia, across the Bering Sea from Alaska. It is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes and geysers, and was a military zone until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is separated from the Russian mainland by hundreds of kilometers of impassable mountains and tundra, so that the only ways to enter or leave are by air or sea.

This remote and isolated region is the setting for Julia Phillips’ first novel, Disappearing Earth. Rather than focus on one or two protagonists, Phillips portrays a whole community. In the first chapter, “August”, two sisters, aged eleven and eight, disappear. This is followed by twelve stories, one for each month of the year after the abduction. Each story is from the point of view of a different female character, who has been affected in some way by the girls’ disappearance. For example, one woman’s partner used the abduction as an excuse to increase his controlling behaviour.

Julia Phillips

The community consists of two groups: ethnic Russians and Indigenous people. Racism is rife and the characters refer to the groups as “whites” and “natives”. The police try, ineffectively, to find the girls, who are Russian, but ignore the earlier disappearance of an Indigenous girl.

Disappearing Earth has received almost universal praise, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was one of the New York Times books of the year for 2019.

I found the early stories to be the least interesting, and I wondered if I should continue reading. I’m glad I persisted, as the prose and story-telling gets better and better as we read on. It is worth reading the book just for the emotional roller coaster of the final two chapters. The penultimate story, “June”, is from the viewpoint of Marina, the mother of the missing children. A journalist, she has come to the town of Esso to cover Nurgenek, the summer solstice new year celebration of the Indigenous Even people. Pushed along by the crowd, she is urged to jump over the fire of the old year.

Marina’s hands were full. She could not press them flat to her chest, and she knew how much she needed them there, how soon she would choke without their comfort. What was the point of all this? She was trying to push out of the line but people kept coming. … No one near Marina understood. Without her girls, all she had was this breathlessness. Terrible as it was – and it was, it was – it was all she had left to mother.

She jumped.

As I read the novel, I flicked between admiration of Phillips’ writing skill and uneasiness at how she writes from the point of view of First Nations people and ethnic Russians. Phillips grew up in New Jersey. Did her year in Kamchatka on a Fulbright Scholarship give her the insight to access the people’s inner lives?

In an interview for the Paris Review, Phillips testifies against herself:

“I feel like what I brought to the story and the place were very much American concerns and American ideas. As much I tried to accurately reflect what I was seeing, what I was seeing was deeply informed, if not completely informed, by my Americanness.

“The design of this book was intended to explore the range of violences in women’s lives. … A lot of what I’m talking about are things that I brought with me to Kamchatka. These are things that preoccupy me all the time.”

The issue that preoccupies Phillips can cause immense damage to people and communities. Does the urgent need to confront this issue justify writing her own way of thinking about it into the heads of people of a very different culture? How is this different from a white person wearing blackface?

I’m still trying to work my way through that puzzle.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adelaide Writers Week 2020

March 13, 2020

The Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is a tribute to South Australian pioneer women, including suffragettes and social reformers. Adelaide Writers Week (29 Feb – 5 Mar) was held at two venues in the parkland, well-shaded by huge leafy trees. Attendance often overflowed the chairs, so people lolled around on the lush grass. During the week, 117 writers, poets, journalists, historians, scientists, politicians and academics from around the world took part. Here are some of my highlights.

Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden (CC Licence)

Fiction

Charlotte Wood (Photo: Chris Chen)

Charlotte Wood spoke about writing her novel, The Weekend, while she was Writer in Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre, a multidisciplinary health research centre at the University of Sydney. She told workers at the centre about the dementing dog in her novel, and said she was worried she wasn’t getting it right. ‘You should talk to our demented dog unit,’ they told her. They introduced her to a group researching dog ownership and human health, and their information was invaluable to Wood in creating seventeen-year-old Finn and his relationship with his owner in The Weekend.

During her session, Wood was asked, why write? To make something beautiful, she replied, and to make something true. If you have talent, you have a moral obligation to use it. And she writes to defy emptiness, by making something that didn’t exist before. Finally, she writes to bear witness. Paying attention is a moral act.

Tara June Winch (CC Licence)

Tara June Winch bears witness. She gave an inspiring talk about her new novel, The Yield, which took a decade to write. Indigenous writers feel the weight of responsibility, she said, especially after the success of her first novel, when she was 24 and trying to say everything and feeling it was too much for her.

Indigenous language is central to The Yield, which shows the spiritual and cultural loss caused by the suppression of language. One of the main characters, Albert Goondiwindi, is writing the history of his people, using entries in the Wiradjuri dictionary he has compiled (based on Stan Grant Snr’s dictionary). Winch struggled with the rules of literature. Can a dictionary be part of a novel? Now she feels like a plasterer who has learnt to build a whole house.

Another First Nations writer, Tony Birch, spoke about his novel, The White Girl (my review here). He described it as a book about love, especially the love Aboriginal women have for each other. He also wanted to show that people can be so damaged by crimes against them that their loss can’t be repaired by reunion or an apology.

Julia Phillips grew up in New Jersey, studied Russian and became a Russophile. Her novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on Kamchatka, the large peninsula in east Russia, where Phillips lived for a year and a half. The novel is written from the point of view of thirteen local women, Russian and Indigenous, after the disappearance of two little girls. Disappearing Earth has received universal praise, and was one of the New York Times books of the year for 2019.

Phillips is charismatic and articulate, and it was only after the session that I began to consider the dangerous thing she had done. Was she really able to inhabit the minds of the Russians and First Nations people of Kamchatka? Or has she filled her characters’ heads with American concerns?

Poetry

Joy Harjo

The most moving events of the week were the poetry readings, especially those by two First Nations poets: Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, and Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. They are friends who spark off each other. I loved Joy Harjo’s strong voice. ‘Poetry,’ she said, ‘is what I go to when I have no words, such as after a massacre.’ It was impossible to remain dry-eyed as she read her long poem, Washing My Mother’s Body, which begins:

I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died.
I return to take care of her in memory.
That’s how I make peace when things are left undone.

 

Non-Fiction

On Sunday of Writers Week, we attended two sessions that ended with standing ovations. The first was for Bernard Collaery, the lawyer for Witness K, who revealed that Australia bugged the Timor-Leste Prime Minister’s office to gain a commercial advantage in oil and gas negotiations. Collaery has just published Oil Under Troubled Water. There was some nervousness among attendees that the session might be raided and all copies confiscated. After the session, people rushed to the book tent, and Collaery’s book sold out in ten minutes.

Many Timorese died helping Australian soldiers in the Second World War and Collaery says that since then we have repaid them with much bastardry, culminating in the bugging.

In Australia, he said, to report a crime is to commit a crime. We have the most repressive legislation in the world. A Bill of Rights is part of the answer, but we also need to value democracy and remove rorters. The rule of law, he said, is still working in the UK.

The second standing ovation was for Megan Davis and Thomas Mayor at the session on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Davis and Mayor are eloquent advocates for the Statement. It is an endorsement of dialogues that took place all over Australia and proposes voice, treaty and truth – a voice to parliament for consultation when making laws about First Nations people and a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making and truth-telling.

Megan Davis said that the dialogues show that symbolism is not enough anymore. All the dialogues were separate but reached similar conclusions. She believes that the announcement of the Statement was a constitutional moment, something that the nation should celebrate forever.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

But wait, there’s more …

With plenty of good food and coffee, over 80 sessions to choose from, and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere created by the gorgeous outdoor setting, Adelaide Writers Week is unique. And the bonus is the Adelaide Festival program each evening. The highlight for us was the Tim Minchin concert that opened the Festival.

Thank you, Adelaide!

Ian McEwan Challenges Himself

February 22, 2020

Review: Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan, 2019

Is Ian McEwan so accomplished at writing novels that he now has to make the writing process as hard as possible?

In Machines Like Me McEwan sets himself two challenges. Firstly, Charlie, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is boring. Charlie himself acknowledges this: “I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood-neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here.”

Secondly, McEwan chooses themes about which it is difficult to say anything new: the relationship between humans and humanoid robots, and their rights and responsibilities to each other. These issues have been thoroughly investigated by sci-fi writers since the fifties, and there is nothing new about the way McEwan deals with them.

Despite my reservations about the novel, it kept me reading. Let’s examine it more closely.

Machines Like Me is an alternative history novel, set in 1982, differing from our version of the world in two ways:

  • Argentina wins the Falklands war by destroying the British fleet with Exocet missiles.
  • Alan Turing is still alive, and his work has resulted in many advances, including highly intelligent robots. Twenty-five artificial humans have just been released, twelve Adams and thirteen Eves.

Charlie, an artificial intelligence nerd, spends his inheritance on an Adam, the Eves having sold out immediately. Adam has a strong personality that makes up for Charlie’s lack. He falls in love with Charlie’s girlfriend, Miranda, and writes haiku to her.

Miranda takes Charlie and Adam to meet her father, a writer, who discusses Shakespeare with Adam, assuming that he is Miranda’s boyfriend and that Charlie is the robot.

Statue of Alan Turing at Suffix University (Photo: Fernrohr, CC)

Miranda is more vital and real than Charlie or Adam, and she is key to the novel’s success. A prisoner has threatened to kill her when he is released, and the back story to this threat is heartbreaking. In a separate thread of the novel, four-year-old Mark, who is abused by his drug-using parents, becomes an important character. Charlie’s responses to Adam, Miranda and Mark change him and, as the novel progresses, he becomes a little less boring. Alan Turing also makes several appearances, especially when problems with the robots begin to emerge. McEwan’s interweaving of these stories and characters is what kept me reading.

While human-android ethical conflicts are sci-fi stand-bys, McEwan does vividly portray them. Is truth everything, as Adam insists? The lives of Miranda and Mark will be determined by the outcome of such conflicts.

McEwan’s skill enables him to tell a good story despite the two challenges he set himself. Machines Like Me is not one of his best novels, but I enjoyed it.

Foibles and Revelations

January 11, 2020


The weekend coverReview: Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, 2019 

The three central characters of The Weekend are accomplished, complex, engaging women: Jude the restaurateur, Wendy the public intellectual, and Adele the actor. They cherish and annoy each other, and I found them easy to love.

The three friends are now in their seventies. They come together to clean out the house of the fourth member of their friendship, Sylvie, who has died. Now they are “shuffling around the gap of the lost one … Despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie’s death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.”

One of my favourite words is foible: “a weakness or failing in an otherwise sound character”. Wood does not use the word but it seems to me that the action of the novel is driven by foibles.

Adele’s foible is vanity. Jude’s foible is disdain for anyone who is not as capable and orderly as she is, which is everyone. Wendy’s foible is her refusal to have Finn, her seventeen-year-old dog, put down, despite his suffering and incontinence. Finn is the fourth main character, and represents the prospect of demented old age that terrifies the women. And each of them tells lies in “all the expected ways”.

Countering these foibles is the genuine love the women have for each other. But, is the “worn rubber band of their friendship” disintegrating?

Charlotte Wood skilfully structures the build-up of tension as the lies the characters tell themselves become more desperate until the novel climaxes with an explosion of truth-telling during a violent storm.

Afterwards, one of the characters realises “my life has not been what I believed it to be.” Now, “she had to understand her life, her children’s lives, from the beginning again.”

Highly recommended.

Single-Rail-Inclinator-Website-1

The women use an inclinator to access their friend’s house by the sea. (Photo: P. R. King & Sons)

 

 

Maybe the Horse Will Talk

December 16, 2019

Maybe Horse

Review: Elliot Perlman, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, 2019

Literary authors turning to high-paced commercial fiction to satirise what’s happening to our society – is this a trend? Example 1: Heather Rose on the greed and immorality of our politicians in Bruny. Example 2: Elliot Perlman on the toxic workplace, corporate greed and sexual harassment in Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

Each of these novels is utterly different from the author’s previous work. Perlman’s preceding novel, The Street Sweeper, is a complex book encompassing the Holocaust and the American civil rights era (my review here).

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is a fast read with many laugh-out-loud moments. The protagonist, Stephen Mazarov, is a lawyer working for legal firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. The novel begins with his cri de coeur, ‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ He knows that his psychopathic boss, Crispy Hamilton, will soon sack him, and he will not be able to pay his mortgage.

When Malcolm Torrent, the CEO of the firm’s biggest client, is dissatisfied with Hamilton’s dismissal of a spate of sexual harassment claims, Stephen sees an opportunity to buy time and keep his job. He convinces Torrent to appoint him as the company’s lawyer for the harassment cases with the promise of making the problem go away within a year. He moves to an office at Torrent Industries.

When he reads the four plaintiffs’ affidavits, he is shocked and sickened. “He wondered what he was doing defending Torrent Industries against these sexual harassment claims. This wasn’t why he had gone to law school.”

When Stephen finds out that A. A. Betga, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, is seeking substantial payouts from the company, Stephen objects. The men have committed crimes, so shouldn’t the women go to the police? Betga explains what would happen in court – the women would have their “entire sexual histories … levelled against them” and would be faced with the de facto onus on them to prove that they are not ‘easy’ and that they should be believed. … Not only would they never get their privacy back, but they’d find it hard to get a job of equivalent standing.” For the plaintiff’s sake, money must substitute for justice. It is troubling to think that men who commit crimes can have their employer buy their way out of punishment.

Perlman uses humour, madcap action and clever storytelling to illustrate this and other issues around sexual assault in the workplace. Stephen joins forces with Carla (one of the plaintiffs), Jessica (head of Human Resources) and A. A. Betga to work towards a good outcome  for the plaintiffs.

Perlman insists that his novel is not a satire, as there is nothing in the book that hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen. This reminds me that in Heather Rose’s Bruny, government intentions are so outrageous that if the novel had been written ten years ago, it would have been deemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is all too believable.

Is our world overtaking our ability to write satire?

The Alcock-Johanson Story

December 13, 2019

The book’s front cover photo shows my mother as a baby with her parents and brothers.

I had a frugal childhood without realising that it was frugal. My parents, Stan Alcock and Ellen Johanson, married in 1925 and bought a dairy farm a few years later. Then the Depression hit, and the price of butter crashed. Ellen and Stan survived by  using their skills at making do with little. Their thrifty habits continued after the depression but to me, their farm was a paradise.

Stan’s ancestors included settlers, dairy farmers and a strong woman who took her family  across the world to join her brother, a sheep thief turned landholder. Ellen’s parents were people of Swedish heritage but Russian citizenship who had migrated to Australia from the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. Her Ancestors were mainly crofters or, like her father, sailors on the wheat run between England and Australia.

These migrants and their descendants were remarkable people, and The Alcock-Johanson Story chronicles their lives. The book includes Johanson Family Tree, by Gaylene Johanson, a report of Gaylene’s painstaking research into Johanson genealogy.

My aim in writing this book was to focus on story more than on information. Thanks to those who had previously researched branches of my family tree,  I  was able to include many stories, some true and some tall.

A few copies are available for purchase by libraries and family historians. Contact bryce@brycealcock.net for details.

The White Girl

December 4, 2019

The White Girl Tony Birch, The White Girl, 2019

As a child, Odette Brown was removed from her parents. In the mission, Odette was not allowed to speak to her father Reuben, except after mass. “While Odette had no faith in the Christian God … she was prepared to raise her voice and praise him if it meant she could be reunited with family, however briefly.”

Reuben had taught Odette to sing just loud enough to keep the missionaries satisfied, “because It’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.“

Now Odette and her 13-year-old granddaughter Cecily (Sissy) live on the outskirts of a small town which could be in rural Queensland. It is the early 1960s, when First Peoples were subject to total control. Odette is an artist but, without citizenship, she cannot open her own bank account, and so keeps her earnings in jam tins. Sissy is fair-skinned, and the new Sergeant in charge of the police station is planning to remove her from Odette.

The heart of this novel is the deep love between Odette and Sissy. The vivid portrayal of these two central characters and their close bond kept me immersed in their story, fearful about the Sergeant’s plan. Odette is a strong and resourceful woman, and she won’t let go of Sissy without a fight.

In a generally favourable review in the Australian, Geordie Williamson criticises Birch’s use of “easy binaries” – the characters are either decent people or monsters. On her ANZLitLovers Blog, Lisa Hill says that Williamson misses the point. She writes: “The White Girl is a story about people who’ve grown up in a binary world, among the powerless, the poor, the uneducated and the dispossessed.  They have learned from their history and their own experiences not to trust people in positions of power.”

I agree. It might be aesthetically satisfying if characters are conflicted and complex, but sometimes evil is done by people who may not be conflicted, like the ruthless Sergeant or the cruel Aaron Kane, who poses a serious threat to Sissy. And the racist attitudes that enabled these “monsters” are still with us. It is legitimate for art and literature to portray such evil.

Lisa Hill points out that the “circumstances of this novel are not ancient history … [but] a history that was taking place at the same time that I, a child born 10,000 miles away, was granted an Australian citizenship denied to the First Nations people of this land.”

I was also growing up at that time, when children were being removed to a reserve a few kilometres from my town. But that history is still happening. Indigenous children are now being removed from their parents at ten times the rate of non-Indigenous children, often when their grandmothers, women like Odette, would have been available to care for them, as shown in the documentary After the Apology. And ten-year-olds are still being sent to prison.

Many Australians are still living in the history portrayed in The White Girl.

Note: Sue at Whispering Gums also has an excellent review of The White Girl, contrasting it with Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, an utterly different novel treating similar themes.

Ada Blackjack: Survival in the Arctic

November 18, 2019

Approaching Wrangel Island, July 2019 (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven, 2003

In 1921, Ada Blackjack, a young Alaskan Inuit seamstress, was persuaded to join an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. In this book, Jennifer Niven tells the story of this remarkable woman.

Ada Cover Book (2)

The organiser of  the venture, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, had arranged a previous disastrous expedition to the Arctic, during which eleven men had lost their lives. Now he decided to send four young men to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire, despite the fact that it was off the coast of the Soviet Union. The men would stay on the island for three years to consolidate the claim and demonstrate how easy it was to live in the “friendly Arctic”.

The men chartered a ship to take them from Nome to the island. They hired several Inuit families to travel with them, the men to hunt, and the women to sew. Seamstresses were vital to make clothing to protect the men from the cold.

When the time came to depart, the Inuit families refused to go because, they said, the trip would be too dangerous. Ada did not want to go as the only female with four men, but eventually agreed to join the trip. She would use her wages to pay for medical treatment for her son, who had suffered from tuberculous.

Lcation map Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island Location Map by Norman Einstein (CC Licence)

They arrived on Wrangel Island in September 1921 and immediately raised the British flag and claimed the island for Great Britain. Then they set up three tents, built the frame of a house and later, when the snow arrived in October, they covered the house walls with snow blocks. Ada worked diligently, sewing and cooking.

After two weeks, Ada changed. She cried uncontrollably and did no work. She had become infatuated with one of the men, and believed the other three were planning to kill her. One of the men, Lorne Knight, was always sharpening his knife.

One day, she disappeared. They followed her footprints. When they found her, she began to scream. She wanted to die and had drank a bottle of liniment.

Arctic-4654

Ada was terrified of being eaten by a polar bear (Photo by Ann Alcock)

The men tried to discipline her by refusing her food, or tying her to the flagpole until she promised to work.

Jennifer Niven suggests that Ada was suffering from Arctic Hysteria, but I think such a dubious diagnosis is unnecessary. Ada had not wanted to join the trip, and regretted doing so. She was desperately homesick, and longed for her son and her sister. She was a town girl and “knew little about fishing, nothing about hunting, and guns and knives terrified her.” And she was always frightened she would be eaten by a polar bear. It would not be surprising if she had reactive depression.

By December, she had recovered. Now “Ada worked harder than any of them. She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean, and scraped skins. She rose at 6 am to bake bread. She was pleasant, cheerful and friendly.”

ArcticBryce-0069

Bird cliff on Wrangel Island (photo by Bryce Alcock)

They all looked forward to the arrival of a ship to restock their provisions in June or July. The men were growing fond of Ada, and would miss her when she returned home on the ship.

But the ship could not get through the ice. And it would be another year before Ada was rescued, by then the sole survivor of the expedition. To survive, she trapped foxes for meat. Despite being terrified of guns, she taught herself to shoot, and bagged seagulls, eider ducks and seals. To help with her hunting, she made a skin boat. She scared polar bears away with rifle shots.

Jennifer Niven tells Ada’s story well, and she also brings to life the many other players in this drama. Ada’s character is revealed though her interactions with others, especially the four men. Ada is strong and engaging, full of fear but also full of courage, initiative and cleverness to overcome that fear. Thrown into an ongoing disaster, she develops the ability to deal with it.

ArcticBryce-0028

Wrangel Island (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

The last part of the book narrates Ada’s life after Wrangel Island, as she tries to avoid her celebrity status. Niven describes her relationships with the families of the four men. This part of Ada’s life is interesting, but not as engrossing as her story of survival in the Arctic. Having recently visited Wrangel Island, I was grateful to immerse myself in this piece of its history.

My thanks to Jenny Gold for lending me the book.