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...
(The entire section is 1791 words.)