During his lifetime, Alfred Wegener was ridiculed by his colleagues, and even today, though the theory of plate tectonics is familiar even to schoolchildren, the name of the German meteorologist who first suggested that land masses are constantly in motion is not widely known. In One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead, Clare Dudman reminds the world how much it owes to a man who stood up to abuse by his colleagues with the same courage that led him onto the glacial ice of Greenland and finally to an early death.
The author of the book was drawn to her subject by her fascination with the idea of continental drift, first proposed by Wegener. By the time she was ready to begin her university education, Dudman already knew enough about Wegener to describe him to university interviewers as the famous scientist she would most like to meet. However, Dudman would complete her doctorate in chemistry, pursue a career in research and teaching, and publish a children's novel before she was ready to embark on a book about Wegener.
After eighteen months of research, including a trip to Greenland, Dudman had ample material for a scholarly biography. However, she chose to write Wegener's story as a historical novel. By having Wegener tell his story in the first-person voice, often in the present tense, Dudman is able to explore the inner conflicts she believes defined Wegener's life, the struggle to hold to his own perception of truth in the face of almost universal scorn and the even more difficult battle with his conscience as he saw his family suffering for his convictions.
One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead begins with a two-part preface, in which Dudman introduces the two symbolic constants in her work: ice and death. The preface begins with what the speaker describes as an explanation of ice. Although in the succeeding paragraphs this narrator, who presumably is Wegener, does present a good deal of factual material, his tone is not that of an objective scientist but of a man with a passion for his subject. Halfway through this poetic disquisition, Wegener speculates that perhaps at some point in the future “the ice will reveal all its dead,” and dead bodies from throughout history will arise from their unmarked graves in the Arctic. From this passage, in which ice and death are symbolically united, the American version of Dudman's book derived its title. Wegener concludes by pointing out that at present, the ice continues to conceal even the graves of those who love it.
The question of what is meant by “the present” points to a flaw in what is otherwise an impressive book. Neither in this preface nor in the rest of the novel is it made clear just where in time Wegener, the narrator, is positioned. The preface seems to suggest that Wegener is speaking from beyond the grave; however, most of the episodes he relates could well be simply his recollections in later years, as he assesses his past life, or even in his final days, as he waits for death.
In any case, the author does not leave the reader uncertain as to Wegener's fate. The last part of the preface is an italicized passage in which an unspecified, objective observer describes a scene on the Greenland ice cap. An exact date is given: it is May 12, 1931, or six months after Wegener vanished. Dogsleds appear, bringing people to dig at a site marked with skis. Suddenly someone announces finding some hair, then an animal skin, then a fragment of clothing which is declared to be “his.” As the preface ends, the diggers are still at their grim task.
If the preface to One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead suggests that Wegener's passion took him to a tragic death, the last two pages of the novel offer a very different perspective. Here Dudman reprints an article from The New York Times in which the famous artist and writer Rockwell Kent urges public support for the work of the German scientists in Greenland, and the scientist who is Wegener's successor offers to work without pay in order to carry on the work of his leader and friend. Clearly the preface and the final extract are meant to serve as a frame for the narrative itself. The preface equates ice with death; the conclusion suggests that Wegener and his passion not just for the poetic beauty he finds in the ice, but also for truth, will live on.
That this historical novel is actually a work about the pursuit of scientific truth is evident in the titles of the...
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