The Last Lost Land
Metro Times Literary Quarterly
Novelist Elizabeth Arthur recaps the hypnotic and inescapable Antarctic
Every age and every culture has its terra incognita - real, imagined, dreamed, invented - that haunts its people; not just the poets and explorers, but the rest of us as well. As far back as Plato, we had visions of Atlantis; Herodotus gave us hyperborea and Sardis and all those "golden cities, far beyond the dim, endragoned, dreaming sea."
Now, however - now we have a world that's been mapped from the inside out and upside down, from 100 miles up and 20,000 leagues under, another patient etherized upon a table and starting to show some of the side effects of humanity's compulsive rambling. Terra incognita has become terra infirma; where now to find the edge of the world?
Once again, the South Pole is looming upon our cultural horizon, just as it did in the early years of this century. Since I began reading Antarctic Navigation, Elizabeth Arthur's hypnotic new novel, there have been no less than three New York Times articles (one on the front page) and one new film ("The Parliament of penguins"), not to mention the usual spate of science-related material, all about the landscape that spurred the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott to write, "Great God, this is an awful place.
If indeed Antarctica proves be our milleniums last great tabula rasa, our Austral Eden, then Arthur may prove to be its Boswell. She has set herself a daunting task. Fortunately for readers, the result if hugely entertaining. One seldom turns the last of 800 pages wishing to relive the whole adventure.
Antarctic Navigation begins with the Colorado childhood of its heroine, the prophetically named Morgan Lamont, who even at the age of 5 refuses to abandon her sled during a blizzard. Morgan is a rare and marvelous character in contemporary literature, a woman driven by a wildly heroic obsession to recreate Scotts disastrous expedition to the South Pole. And Morgan of course, intends to survive where Scott and his fellows did not.
Arthur details the life of her heroine in Dickensian fashion. Her novel is populated with lavishly and lovingly drawn characters, from Morgans childhood friend Wilbur, an innocent savant gifted with the preternatural ability to understand dogs, to the wonderfully horrible John Brutus Carnady, so-called Emperor of the Ice, despot of the U.S. Antarctic base McMurdo Station.
I wont spoil the rest of the novel - how Morgan finds a benefactor for her expedition, how she and her hand-picked comrades fare on the Ice, how Morgan and even Antarctica are altered by the various dreams that possess them. Barring a trip to the place itself, there may be no better way to experience the perilous and endangered majesty of Antarctica, and those who are driven not to conquer by to understand and preserve it.
Elizabeth Arthur is the author of five previous books - three novels and two volumes of memoirs. All of her work is suffused with a love of the outdoors, the grandeur and peril of places distant in fact or memory - Nepal, Antarctica, British Columbia, southern Vermont.