This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich is part memoir and part history, intertwining the author's story with that of Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen and, to a lesser extent, the artist Rockwell Kent. I'm not sure I was in the mood for this book, which only served to reinforce my suspicion that authors tend to include these vaguely related histories in their books because they don't have enough of a story themselves. I think I snoozed during most of the Rasmussen parts, but the stories about the author's experiences in Greenland were intriguing.
The overall atmosphere was of cold, darkness, and isolation. The land was devoid of trees and the meals described consisted mostly of seal meat - no vegetables were to be found in this barren country. The lack of color, light, and food may explain why sometimes the writing meandered into the philosophical:
"The panting and trotting of the dogs was all I heard. Was I seeing through a glass darkly or into an empiness that was bright? It is said that emptiness inspires compassion, but first you have to wade across the waters of uncertainty." (p.346)
"That night I asked Stephen Hawking's unanswerable question: Is it possible to remember the future? Light penetrated my eyelids and landscape slipped from sight in the curvature of space-time; over the falls in a barrel it went. To talk about a future seemed wrongheaded, calling up the old insistence on linear time, and so did the Christian fantasy that we are living out some sacred tragedy of sinful lives from which we must seek redemption." (p.111)
I wish there was a little less of that and a little more of the folktales about women marrying their dogs, or anecdotes like the one about the crew who had to desert their ship and then spent six months, floating on an iceberg and surviving on seal meat, before being rescued 1300 miles away from where they started. I suppose the long and short of it is that learning about Greenland was interesting, but reading this particular book was not quite so interesting.
I also got the strong sense that this culture, which is so far from what we know in the US, is slipping away along with the polar ice caps. Dogsleds are giving way to snowmobiles, hunters are finding it more difficult to get by without outside income, and in 2001 when the book was being written, Greenland's first commercial airport was being built. Indeed, there are now direct flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Kangerlussuaq. Already, the communities that Ehrlich visited must have changed a great deal.
The author briefly mentioned something I found particularly interesting: "During the Korean War, a large hospital in Naarssarsuaq received soldiers so badly hurt that the Americans sequestered them in Greenland, so the extent of American injuries would not be seen." (p.144) This hospital, which Wikipedia calls a legend, was also the subject of a novel I read not long ago, No One Thinks of Greenland by John Greisemer (I must have gotten both these titles from some Greenland-themed bibliography). It's an engaging story about a corporal who is sent there to work on the hospital's newspaper, but then finds himself facing censorship from those who really don't want anything about the hospital published, even internally. His developing friendship with one of the patients and the difficult conditions of living in Greenland round out this much-overlooked novel. Other than whatever source originally led me to it, I have heard absolutely nothing about this book and consequently have been promoting it at the library every chance I get. Come to think of it, you should read it too!