Recently I finished a book called ‘The Ice Child’ that weaves a story between the present and the past involving the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in the 1800’s to find the Northwest Passage aboard two ships, The Terror and The Erebus. Countless non-fiction accounts of this doomed expedition have been published, though I confess I have stuck to the fictional treatments.
This has prompted me to write a post about some of my favorite works that involved ‘isolation’, or characters in remote locations, separated from society and assistance either by their own choice or by circumstances beyond their control. I have chosen four of my favorite works to post about here, with The Ice Child being a new favorite.
The Ice Child, by Katherine McGregor (no, nor Mrs. Oleson from Little House On The Prairie, that was Katherine MacGregor) centers on a journalist who becomes fascinated with a missing tv show host, Doug Marshall, who has held a decades-long fascination with the Franklin Expedition, and has gone AWOL in search of artifacts from that trek through the northern-most reaches of the planet. McGregor tells her story by switching back and forth from the 19th century to present day and chronicles the actual expedition itself in juxtaposition to the modern day search by Marshall for Franklin artifacts and her subsequently falling in love with him. The seamless interweaving of the two tales is well presented and capped off by a time-sensitive search for Marshall’s adult son, who seems to carry the same obsession as his father before him with finding something of the Franklin Expedition to claim as his own. A wonderful read, very engaging and fast paced.
The first fictional treatment I ever indulged in about this same subject matter was Dan Simmons’ ‘The Terror’. Simmons’s reputation was built upon horror tales, and I first discovered him in a bargain bin of books in a supermarket with one of his earlier offerings, Summer Of Night, which reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘It’ and ‘Stand By Me’ in many ways. Simmons used recurring characters from this book in later works, such as Fires Of Eden, Children of Night, and A Winter’s Haunting, but The Terror is a standalone novel about the two ships of the Franklin Expedition and what ‘horrors’ they encountered marooned in the ice for years at the top of the world. It is more ‘psychological suspense’ than horror, and easily one of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past ten years. The relentless cold, along with ‘monsters’ real and imagined kept me hooked from start to finish.
After reading ‘The Terror’, I indulged in Admiral Richard Byrd’s ‘Alone’ – a story of his solo manning of an Antarctic outpost in the 20th century, to gather weather data, and ‘to taste peace and quiet long enough to know what they really are’. Byrd’s account of his solitary existence in subzero temperatures, and his improvisational methods of surviving are truly riveting from start to finish. This has long been hailed as a ‘classic’ polar adventure, and it lives up to its reputation.
Several years ago I fell in love with the stories of Jack Kerouac having read On The Road for the first time in my late 20’s. Since then I’ve read several more of Kerouac’s alcohol-induced ramblings and have never been disappointed. Desolation Angels chronicles a time in Kerouac’s life when he spent months alone in a fire-station outpost in the mountain. Below is a short review of the book that I put on Amazon.com after reading and loving this work.
Jack Kerouac’s ‘Desolation Angels’, written about a period of his life roughly 10 years before his death, acts as a nice bridge between ‘On The Road’ (which was awaiting publication during the course of events described in “Angels”) and a subsequent publication, Big Sur, both of which I’ve read.
During his two month self-imposed exile to work as a fire ranger on Desolation Peak, Jack Kerouac was forced to confront many of his pre-existing or emerging demons. The location for this period of his life is especially apropos for the ‘desolation’ surrounding Kerouac, much of which was self-created, as he sank further into depression and alcoholism.
The book covers more of his life than just the two months on Desolation Peak, but as Jack re-emerges into society, you get the sense that this ‘loner’ was only comfortable being ‘alone’ amongst others…that while he could see, smell, and wander amongst others, and feel tolerably ‘isolated’…he could not stand the true isolation he could achieve, to remove himself from society altogether.
Jack wanders from the American Northwest to Florida, to Mexico, to Tangiers, to California with his mother in tow, and eventually back to Florida, when his mother grows further depressed with their cross-country move after only a month.
Many players from Kerouac’s former novels appear in this one as well, albeit with different names…the poet ‘Gregory Corso,’ to whom Kerouac lost ‘Mardou Fox’ in “Subterraneans” is called ‘Raphael Urso’ in “Angels”…’Dean Moriarty,’ from “On The Road” is ‘Cody’ in this incarnation.
Kerouac’s detachment from the Beat Generation, his status as their reigning ‘king’, his fame, and his Buddhist beliefs all come into focus during this novel, one of his finest, in my opinion. If you rode shotgun with Kerouac for On The Road, explore his life further, and you will uncover far more about this dark and troubled yet fascinating author.
I have found upon searching Amazon.com that there are many, many more novels of ‘isolation’ out there waiting for me, and hopefully will get to indulge in more of them over time. The above are just four examples of ones that I’ve truly enjoyed from start to finish. I hope that these brief descriptions are enticement enough for others who enjoy stories of this nature to investigate one or more of them further and take a look for themselves. All are worth the effort.