Books: Polar Sagas

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Books: Polar Sagas
By Andrea Barrett

Mind Over Matter: The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent, by Ranulph Fiennes (Delacorte Press, $21.95). Shadows on the Wasteland: Crossing Antarctica with Ranulph Fiennes, by Mike Stroud (Overlook Press, $21.95). The fun of reading these books comes in comparing differing takes on a single experience: the first completely unsupported crossing of Antarctica, attempted by the British team in 1992. At least Fiennes and Stroud agree on a few of the facts: For 95 spectacularly awful days, they hauled sledges with starting weights of almost 500 pounds over 1,350 miles of high, icy desert. A cramped schedule with no rest days strained the men to the breaking point. Fiennes's early decision to save weight by discarding some clothes, followed by Stroud's decision to discard "extra" food, resulted in frostbite and near-starvation. As they grew thinner and colder, rivalries befitting the traditions of polar travel blossomed: Who was pulling more weight faster, with worse medical problems, over worse terrain? Who was leading whom, and which was propping up the other?

This is where the two accounts come into conflict. Fiennes, now 50 years old, initially lagged behind and bitterly resented his partner for disturbing his customary "polar plod" by setting "a pace that seemed to me...increasingly and unnecessarily fast." Stroud, 39, sympathized at first, but when Fiennes threatened to abandon him after he was slowed in turn by a bout of diarrhea, Stroud decided "to go as fast as I liked.... If it hurt Ran's morale, he could look after it himself."

Tomcatty spritzes of self-justification mark both accounts. Overall, Fiennes's is better written, better organized, and sets the expedition more firmly in its historical context. But against the controlled, pub-licity-wise cadences of his fellow argonaut's prose, Stroud's artlessly self-revealing narrative has the feel of truth: a small voice reminding us that glory on such "heroically daft" expeditions is all too rarely shared with the supporting members of the team.

White Man's Grave, by Richard Dooling (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22). This disquieting and often very funny satire skewers American corporate and suburban culture, misguided development agencies, chaotic African tribal politics, New Age vagabonds, and high-powered Western medicine. In Sierra Leone, known to its former British colonizers as the White Man's Grave, everyone--from the American government to his best friend--is looking for young Michael Killigan. Has the secret society of the Mende tribe abducted him from the village where he was working as a Peace Corps volunteer? Has he been caught in the convoluted schemes of the two-bit tribal leader and wannabe politico? Or is it true, as a distraught village boy reports, that he "roams the paths at night in the shape of a bush devil hungry for the souls of the witchmen who killed him?" Working at cross-purposes, Michael's would-be saviors attempt to penetrate the local "force field, inhabited by demons, witches, devils, genies, sorcerers, and disgruntled ancestors," and rescue him from a situation that he may have engineered on purpose. Imagine Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities transported to Graham Greene's West Africa, and you'll have a feel for this merciless and juicy tale.

Leaving Alaska, by Grant Sims (Atlantic Monthly Press, $22). Outside contributor and former scriptwriter Sims, looking for a taste of frontier life, moved to Fairbanks in 1982. Almost a decade later, he pulled back to a farm in western Oregon. Isolation, the daunting climate, and a desire to provide a wider world for his young son clearly played a role in Sims's departure. But he lays the burden of his disillusionment mostly on the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The varieties of eco-warrior burnout that followed--witnessed, in his case, more than experienced--lend backbone both to Sims's story and to the stories that he relates of friends, Alaskan Natives, and commercial fishermen. Sims renders it all in a journalist's rushed style, sometimes repetitive and overloaded with detail. But his true voice surfaces with his own ambivalent response to loving and leaving Alaska.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web