Antarctic Navigation

by Elizabeth Arthur
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1791


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The most effective writing in this lengthy, multifaceted book comes in Elizabeth Arthur’s descriptions of the fatal Antarctic expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, the English naval officer who raced the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to the South Pole between October 24, 1911, and January 18, 1912, using motor sledges, ponies, and dog teams. Scott seems to function as a sort of idealized father figure for the heroine, and quite possibly for the author herself.

Antarctic Navigation is so intensely autobiographical that it is sometimes difficult to guess where fact leaves off and fantasy begins. Arthur’s parents were divorced when she was only five years old, and she saw her father, a mystery writer, only rarely after that. He died when she was fifteen. Similarly, Morgan Lamont’s father is a passive, undemonstrative man who is absent during most of her formative years. Her stepfather, Dr. Jim Rankin, is a stronger character, but she grows to hate him for his coldness toward herself and his tyranny over her mother. Rankin is a martinet, a pragmatic scientist who has little sympathy for emotions or ideals. His efforts to tutor little Morgan bring to mind Thomas Gradgrind’s teaching methods in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854).

Many of the men Morgan meets only make her idealized hero Scott seem all the more attractive to her. On her first trip to Antarctica, shortly after graduation from college, she has the misfortune to fall into the sphere of a totally unsympathetic, authoritarian personality who brings out the rebellious streak in her nature. She soon gets herself discharged from her position as a shuttle driver with the United States Antarctic Program and exiled from McMurdo Base for deliberately disobeying the commandant’s orders against taking unauthorized sightseeing excursions.

Morgan’s dreams of following the deceased Scott across the frozen wilderness, as well as her disappointing love affairs with various men along the way, seem like a hopeless quest for the tenderness and emotional security she never experienced as a child. She herself does not seem to understand what she is doing on this forbidding continent and frequently asks herself why she is risking her life and undergoing so much hardship. The bleak environment begins to symbolize the protagonist’s emotional predicament. Her strange obsession with the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of Scott and his companions is the slender thread that holds this book together.

Robert Scott’s experiences in Antarctica at the beginning of the twentieth century have been fashioned by Arthur’s intricate craftsmanship into a story within a story. Arthur has acquired professional competence and self-confidence after publishing five previous books. In interviews this zestful author has stated that she enjoys writing fiction in both the first and third persons—in this case telling the main story in the first person as Morgan Lamont and interjecting stories and sketches of other people in the third person along the way. Scott and his intrepid comrades, E. A. Wilson, H. R. Bowers, L. E. G. Oates, and Edgar Evans, reappear throughout this long novel-biography-autobiography-histo ry-travelogue-ecological polemic like phantoms materializing out of the “white darkness,” moving stiffly in their old-fashioned cold-weather gear and blinking at Morgan and her fellow time travelers through ice- encrusted lashes.

In June of 1910, Scott formed a second Antarctic expedition with the intention of being the first to reach the South Pole. The twelve-man party encountered such brutal weather conditions and forbidding geological obstacles that they had to shoot their ponies and send the dog teams back to their base camp at Cape Evans. After a grueling eighty-one-day trek across the cold continent, the five remaining members of the party discovered that a rival party led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the pole by almost a month. On the return journey they encountered such persistently hostile weather that they were forced to remain in their tent until they died of cold, starvation, and exhaustion. Their bodies were found by searchers on November 12, 1912. Scott’s final entry in his journal read in part:

Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. . . . We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

Although some of the incidents in Arthur’s novel are based on her own experiences, she did not suffer any serious physical injuries in Antarctica, nor did she ever reach the South Pole. Morgan Lamont’s first abortive visit to Operation Deep Freeze is closer to Arthur’s own experience, except that Morgan is banished for flouting the rules. That might have been the end of Morgan’s exposure to Antarctica were it not for the intervention of her wealthy grandfather, a hardheaded New England capitalist who inexplicably sympathizes with his granddaughter’s dream of duplicating Scott’s journey to the South Pole. The crusty William Lamont, owner of one of America’s biggest paint factories, hands over ten million dollars to finance the expedition that Morgan christens the “Ninety South.” With this sort of financial backing, Morgan is able to ignore her persona non grata status with the American authorities. She assembles an ideal team, including friends and lovers, and buys her own icebreaker to sail to Antarctica.

The only serious criticism Antarctic Navigation has received is that it is too long. Several hundred pages at the beginning are spent in autobiographical reminiscences about a not particularly unusual childhood, and the fictional heroine’s powerful motivation to conquer Antarctica is left unexplained. Even after Morgan arrives in Antarctica for her first abortive visit, it takes nearly six hundred pages more to get the Ninety South Expedition started on its way toward the pole. Arthur’s book is crowded with anecdotes, philosophical digressions, scientific speculations, close observations of nature, nostalgic descriptions of various love affairs, and diatribes against polluters, politicians, and lobbyists. It contains some dramatic episodes, but the drama does not become sustained until the last of the five major sections, when Morgan and her friends finally encounter the kinds of trouble readers associate with polar expeditions.

Morgan’s polar journey as leader of Ninety South recapitulates Scott’s in more ways than one. Her party reaches the South Pole successfully but, like Scott’s, runs into its worst troubles on the way back. Morgan steps onto a treacherous snow bridge and falls into a crevasse, breaking her arm so severely that the bones pierce through her skin. Her comrades manage to set the bones and haul her back through the frozen wilderness in time to save the gangrenous arm from amputation.

Morgan hallucinates all the way back to the station on McMurdo Sound. Her mother and father appear in her visions, along with many other important figures from her past. Obsessed with visions of Operation Desert Storm, which is taking place in Iraq, she imagines the civilian casualties that will result and the ecological devastation that could occur if the Kuwaiti oil wells are set on fire. Her attitude toward the American government is uniformly unfavorable.

This part of the adventure is not autobiographical but purely creative. The author’s only exposure to Antarctica occurred during a few weeks in 1990, after she received an operational support grant by the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program (which had provided fewer than thirty nonscientists with opportunities to visit McMurdo Station in the thirty-seven years of the program’s existence). Arthur explicitly disclaims her heroine’s attitude toward the American authorities in Antarctica, explaining that John Brutus Carnady was an entirely fictitious creation and that she had actually been allowed to go anywhere she wanted during her sojourn at McMurdo.

The reader can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit confused at times regarding what is fact and what is fiction; it is part of the disorientation one might be expected to feel in an upside-down land of white darkness where every direction is north and the orange sun bumps across the horizon like an underinflated balloon.

The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program made a good choice in Elizabeth Arthur. She writes eloquently about nature and is deeply concerned about saving the planet from further environmental destruction and especially about preventing the ecological rape of Antarctica. She is as hardy as any man who ever challenged the frozen continent. She displays a vivid imagination, making the reader see the cruel geography of a continent larger than North America and feel the frigid loneliness of places such as Mount Erebus, Mount Discovery, White and Black Islands, Cape Royds, Cape Evans, Beardmore Glacier, and the Royal Society Mountains.

Arthur’s plan for Antarctic Navigation was unusual and highly ambitious. She wanted the novel to be big and strange, like the continent of Antarctica itself. She wanted the reader to feel occasionally lost and disoriented, sometimes lonely and even abandoned. The book is divided into more than seventy short chapters which sometimes advance the story by inches and sometimes do not advance it at all or actually take it backward. Many chapters are given ominous or cryptic titles such as “The Thing,” “The Arc of Infinity,” “The City of the Old Ones,” and “The Royal Terror Theatre,” as if to suggest that the awe and wonder of sublunar exploration have not been entirely eliminated by helicopters and state-of-the-art communication equipment.

The book’s quixotic free-form design was intended to evoke an impression of the puniness of human beings against the vastness of Antarctica. Arthur compares the continent to a painter’s white canvas. Crowding the incidents of her heroine’s whole lifetime into her picture seemed to her the only way of conveying a sense of the size and emptiness of the continent. Antarctica is described partly by implication. The author does not indulge in clichés about the rugged grandeur of the wind-swept glaciers; instead, she picks out tiny details such as the way a seal suddenly emerges from its breathing hole and honors her with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind an impression of wet whiskers and breath smelling of fish.

The experimental form of this book—part fiction, part autobiography, partly told in the first person and partly in the third—reflects the adventurous nature of the author herself. Her exploration of her consciousness parallels others’ ongoing exploration of the still largely unknown Antarctic.

Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. X, Summer, 1995, p. 54.

Boston Globe. March 2, 1995, p. 48.

The New York Times Book Review. C, January 22, 1995, p. 11.

San Francisco Chronicle. January 15, 1995, p. REV1.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Summer, 1995, p. 94.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, January 8, 1995, p. 5.

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