There’s a moment in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster memoir, when she realizes that a hunter she recently passed on the Pacific Crest Trail has circled back and is watching her through the trees as she changes clothes and pitches camp. That tension—navigating the wilderness while steering her way through the men she encounters there—wasn’t always present in first-person adventure tales written by women. In 1934’s The Valleys of the Assassins, author Freya Stark rarely mentions her gender; the same is true of Beryl Markham in West with the Night, about her life as an African bush pilot in the 1930s. Recent writers have become more personal: Gretel Ehrlich, Sara Wheeler, Pam Houston, Kira Salak. But it wasn’t until Wild that publishers got excited about signing authors whose books would include an account of their experience as women in the wilderness.
This summer, readers have their pick of female narrators traversing both internal and external terrain (see “Miss Adventures,” below). But few stand out as much as Blair Braverman’s Arctic memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube ($26, Ecco).
It’s a story as much about a love affair with a strange, untamed place as it is about a young woman finding a way to be at home in the frozen tundra. A California kid fascinated by the Arctic, Braverman heads off to Norway on a high school exchange in 2004 and returns to the country again and again. Much of the narrative focuses on her attempts to learn to drive a dog team, first at a school in the far north, and later on a remote Alaskan glacier. “The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine,” she writes of her first time on a sled. “Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to. They were beautiful. They were so beautiful.”
Along the way, Braverman builds an unlikely bond with Arild, the man who runs the village shop, and learns to deal with a very odd cast of male characters: truckers with mail-order brides waiting at home; an erratic, hard-luck sailor named Helge Jensen; a slaughterhouse baron called He the Rich One.
Braverman’s awareness of her vulnerability in wild places is a current running below the surface of every page, whether she’s risking death in an Arctic snowstorm or fending off a horny drunk at a bush party. Much of the book’s suspense comes from Braverman’s own fears. During an unsettling fall semester with her exchange family, she becomes hyperaware of her host father’s ever present gaze. “I occasionally practiced climbing out of my bedroom window,” she writes, “and left the window cracked open even as the nights grew colder.” The physical challenges of learning to be a musher eventually offer a way through the emotional ones. It’s a powerful combination.
Three more recent reads from stellar new female voices
Running: A Love Story ($17, Seal Press)
For years, Jen Miller fell for the wrong men. Then she pushed herself to run faster and farther.
This Road I Ride ($27, W.W. Norton and Co.)
Juliana Buhring lost her soulmate when he was killed by a crocodile during a kayaking expedition. She battled her grief by cycling around the world.
Everything Is Teeth ($25, Pantheon)
Evie Wyld’s graphic novel explores her fear of and fascination with sharks, born of childhood summers on the Australian coast.
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