This is my second read for Annabookbel’s NordicFINDS challenge, and I’ve enjoyed picking all these books off my TBR (surely the challenge I’ve been able to fulfil most numerously from the TBR, apart from 20 Books of Summer, ever!) and working my way through them. Like “The Museum of Whales …“, I bought this last summer, using lovely Christmas book tokens from friends, and I’ve now read five out of the nine books bought then, not bad considering they’re so (relatively) recent!

This classic of Polar literature was first published, in German, in 1938. The English translation was done by Jane Degras in 1954 and this really pretty edition was published by Pushkin Press in 2019 – I’d imagine I saw it on a few blogs at the time.

Christiane Ritter – “A Woman in the Polar Night”

(24 June 2021)

‘No, we don’t need anything. We’ve got everything we need. Nor do we want to leave here yet. The only thing is that our supply of coffee has given out.’

We are entertained onboard ship, and are given a whole kilogram of coffee and four tins of condensed milk as well as a four-week-old newspaper. Then we return happily to our wilderness. (p. 211)

There are lots and lots of classics of Polar literature of course, but very few of them, and certainly not until very recent times, have been written by women. Because the women were the ones who stayed at home, looking after the household and worrying about their explorer husbands. In fact, this book has some similarities with that modus operandi, except Christiane is waiting for her husband in the northern part of the Norwegian island of Svalbard, and the household is a two-room hut, shared by them plus a younger hunter, Karl, that is heated by a broken unreliable stove and buried in snow they have to dig themselves out of half the time, and their dinners are constructed of oats and seal meat.

On the seals: yes, there is quite a lot of hunting in this book. I know we all got a bit concentrated on whether the whale museum in the last book was a hunting museum, but I have to say this is a book with a lot of hunting in it. There’s even the worry of having a house-arctic-fox around the place, who will eventually be trapped for his fur, however much Christiane tries to save him (because of who I am and who a lot of my readers are, I will say here that he gets through OK). So there’s hunting to make sure they have food, and trapping to get furs to sell to keep themselves going, and that’s not going to appeal to everyone – it didn’t appeal to me, of course, but I was able to read it as part of a particular – very particular – situation in which it is understandable. I did enjoy more the tales of finding a tiny bit of ancient dried yeast so they could make bread, etc.

The descriptions of life, especially as the polar night falls and retracts (they are well north of the Arctic Circle and so literally don’t see the Sun for months and months, this is not like reasonably cosy Iceland where it does still rise in the winter) are beautiful, and the portraits of the northern lights stunning. Weird things happen – voices and other sounds travel miles across the still ice and Christiane is surprised to recognise one of her own old bedcovers, trapped in the ice having been used as a sail before she got there. But mainly she adapts to life there and never wants to leave, the austere beauty and the hard work capturing her heart.

It’s a fascinating book. There are many mysteries we will never see answered (Christiane never wrote another book, so this is it). How do they conduct their marriage, especially with Kurt around until the last few weeks? We see her husband calling her stupid a few times when she makes the kind of mistakes anyone would make, but not much real affection. He is silent on the privations he suffers on hunting trips across the frozen wastes, and she doesn’t ask. She mentions leaving all the servants and her house in Austria, but there is one mention of their daughter, apparently a teenager at the time of the journey. We get psychological insight, sometimes raw, sometimes incredibly moving, as well as lots of delicious and not-so-delicious details of life in such an inhospitable place.

There’s a lovely map in the front, drawings of the goings-on of everyday life throughout the book, and reproductions of a few photographs in the back – it’s of course a beautifully designed Pushkin Press book so we have French flaps and an impeccable cover image. I’m so glad I’ve finally read this.

This was my second NordicFINDS read and covered Norway, in the form of the archipelago of Svalbard.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 2 Book 2/53 – 51 to go.