In the Land of
White Death

An Epic Story of Survival
In the Siberian Arctic

Valerian Albanov
(Random House)
In 1912, Valerian Albanov signed on to the Santa Anna, leaving from Murmansk, bound for Vladivostok, 7,000 miles to the east. The ship was looking for the Northeast Passage --- the one that had been sought for so many years so that Russia could open up direct trade with China and Japan. Unfortunately, the ship soon became ice-bound, and after a year being pulled hither-and-yon by the ice, Albanov and ten others decided to build sledges and cross the frozen sea to the Franz Josef Archipelago to seek help.

They took leave of the ship in early April of 1913, and for the next three months, wandered across ice-packs, up and down glaciers, across melted snow, kayaking over watery wastes, being attacked by walrus, eating rarely, getting frostbitten, going snow-blind, losing their way, fighting amongst themselves, trying to sleep in impossible places, wet and cold, tortured by scurvy and extreme vitamin deficiency.

What is it about these stupid journeys that captures us so? Five or ten or a dozen or fifty men, at the turn of the century, climbing to impossible heights, trudging across frozen wastes, descending to the most abysmal, animal state --- threatening life and limb in some ridiculous pursuit. What is it that makes reading about these journeys so gripping? I pick up In the Land of White Death (great name!) to browse, and suddenly Albanov and I and the ten others (soon enough to dwindle to a sole companion) are locked in combat with an enraged walrus, or we are limping along, our toes frost-bitten, or we are stunned by the selfishness of our compadres (two of the men steal the best skis and compasses and clothing --- take off on their own. Albanov and I are wondering how people can be so brainless.) Then suddenly there we are in a kayak and the wind shifts and we are being blown out into the Barents Sea, away from Northbrook Island, the only place in this icy wasteland where we are sure to find food and shelter.

Why do he and I feel such despair? After all, we got ourselves into this mess. And having gotten into it, with our feet cramped and frozen, our arms aching from paddling, being threatened by all sorts of sea beasts --- can we possibly survive?

§     §     §

Of course we are going to survive, silly. Remember, Albanov got back to write and publish this book. The editors claim that the writing is on a level with The Worst Journey in the World and Endurance and Nansen's Fartherest North. They may be right. Certainly Albanov has narrative ability, and some passages carry us masterfully into the depths of icy agony. When, for instance, they are dragging themselves across the permafrost, day after day, and suddenly,

    I can see a port: People are strolling in the shade of the high harbor walls. Shop doors are open wide. Aromas of tropical fruit fill the air with their fragrance. Peaches, oranges, apricots, raisins, cloves, and pepper all give off their wonderful scents. The asphalt steams after being sprayed with water...

And then, "What happened?" asked my companions. "Nothing," I answered. "I tripped over my pole."

    The boreal landscape unfolded once more before me in an infinite expanse, and the sun which had fleetingly brought me such joy now sought only to blind and torture me.

Fantasy. Anger at his companions. Terrible weariness. And then, against odds, when they finally do make it to Northbrook, what, of all the items there, gives them the greatest pleasure. The stove? The cans of beef? The tea? The coffee? No --- it's the biscuits!

    Bread and biscuit are indispensable; they are the basis of one's diet. I know now and forever the true value of bread...we were as happy as a couple of children to find this huge supply of biscuits. Just imagine it: five whole crates full!

They also find several huts, and the tools they need to survive, and soon enough, the Santa Foka, another exploratory ship, tools up, and what do Albanov and his sole surviving companion do? Do they laugh, sing, jump for joy? No. They immediately dress up. After three bathless months, their faces are dirty, their shoes torn, their clothes are a scandal.

    There was no doubt that she was about to drop anchor, so we rushed to the "mansion" to get ready for our first encounter with civilized people, not wanting them to see us in our filthy rags. Our "Sunday clothes" were already drying on the rocks in front of the house; we had scrubbed them over and over again with ashes. Now we had to shake all the dead lice out of them, wash ourselves well with Ziegler's soap, and quickly get dressed. This was done at top speed, and we finally looked as presentable as was possible under the circumstances. We had even cleaned and oiled our boots, although in a drawing room we still would have stuck out like sore thumbs.

§     §     §

Albanov tells a fine story, and the details like this bring his terrible journey to life. Still, there is a bit more here than pure narrative and adventure. There is the character of our hero. He is, naturally, going to put the best face on it, but there is certainly a touch of arrogance about him. He is, after all, of the Russian aristocracy that all but disappeared after the Revolution. It may have been the cold and the ice, or maybe it was the cold and ice of his imperious way that turned his companions so slothful and sullen. After all, the two thieves with considerably fewer resources than theirs got to the first rendezvous --- Alexandra Land --- long before Albanov and his crew.

In truth, any who embarked on the journey on the astoundingly underequipped Santa Anna should have had their head examined. The sole female on board, a nurse by the name of Zhdanko, wrote a letter to her father before embarking, saying that their journey would "take two or three weeks and I'll come home from Arkhangel'sk by train..." She died, presumably, aboard the ice-locked ship.

Her inexperience could explain her foolhardiness. Not so Albanov. He was a navigator, trained four years at the Naval College at St. Petersburg, and an experienced sailor. Nothing can explain his idiocy, except the usual arrogance of nobility.

--- M. P. Riswell

The War
Against Boys

Christina Hoff Sommers
(Simon and Schuster)
Is it possible that "Christina Hoff Sommers" is a fictional creation of the right wing lunatic fringe? If so, she is a masterpiece-all the right credentials: a graduate of Brandeis, a professor at Clark University, and, mirabile dictu, a woman! What self-respecting liberal could argue with those credentials?

Now, using this straw woman, the right wing could enact its plan: discredit feminism, justify male aggression (after all, "boys will be boys," according to "Christina") and restore the man to his rightful place at the head of the table.

Sommers dedicates the majority of this book to bashing feminists: The American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Department of Education, and anyone else who dares to disrupt the status quo of our patriarchal culture. Carol Gilligan alone gets two whole chapters.

Some of Sommers' bolder claims include the assertion that male violence toward women is exaggerated, as is the claim that teenage girls battle with low self-esteem. She feels free to ignore such issues as the staggering number of women raped on college campuses, the number of pre-teen and teenage girls suffering from eating disorders, and the billions of dollars spent on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery by women each year.

Finally, Sommers arrives at her central thesis: boys are being hurt by feminism.

Apparently, boys have been hurt by a curriculum and classroom structure that has been geared especially for girls. Schools are resocializing boys into girls when they attempt to make boys less competitive and less aggressive. In addition, schools are far too often allowing classrooms to become havens for freethinking. It was, after all, the sin of freethinking that led to tragedies such as the Columbine massacre.

After 200 pages of attacks and complaints (how like a typical woman!), the author offers a solution. The magic bullet that will end the problems of our boys is a return to the traditional pre-Dewey classroom, strictly structured and highly disciplined. With open freethinking classrooms, you get Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But in the traditional classrooms of yesteryear, the worst you end up with is maybe "The Fonz."

To illustrate her pedagogic point, Sommers flexes her philosophical muscle, pitting Rousseau, an advocate for a free and creative instruction process, against Aristotle, the champion of disciplined learning. When the dust settles, crusty old Aristotle is proclaimed the winner. The classically structured classroom will save our young boys, reinstilling their confidence to again take the helm of leadership.

As for the girls. Back to the galley.

Generally I am not for book burnings, but if I were stranded in a Vermont snowstorm inside a log cabin with only one book to burn to stay alive, this one would do nicely. Even if I didn't burn it, it still would make my blood boil.

--- Scott-Justin St. Germain

The Boy
In the Lake

A Novel
Eric Swanson
(St. Martins)
Christian Fowler is a therapist in New York City, living with his gay lover, a doctor. His grandmother dies, and he returns to Amity, Ohio to gather up her possessions, and take care of her ashes. He gets to return, too, to the memories from so many years past when he was growing up in Amity: of a lost, wispy love; of the small towns of America back in 1960s and 1970s; of his father who one day, when Christian was eleven, drowned in a lake, while on a fishing trip.

He was strangely unmoved by the death, but

    I spent a lot of time imagining that my father wasn't really dead. Some of the scenarios I invented were quite elaborate, for instance, I imagined him suddenly stepping from behind on of the trees by the side of the road as I made my way home from school --- or perhaps I'd hear him call my name first. He'd tell me not to come any closer, and when I asked why, he'd explain that if he showed himself, we'd all be in terrible danger. Then he'd inscribe a place where he'd buried a box of thousand-dollar bills, which I was supposed to dig up and take home to my mother, along with a message that varied, but always included that he loved her, and would join us soon, and everything would be much better than it had been before.

This is the first story in The Boy in the Lake --- that of a young man and his newly-widowed mother, his solid, loving Polish grandmother, his newly dead father. The second story concerns his only friend, Reis: lanky, confident, one who, for a brief time, is his inspiration. And one who is, in the way of boys, a young love partner.

Unfortunately, the other boys decide that Reis is "goofy," or --- in the language of the time --- a "'mo." They arrange a rendezvous with him --- and Christian, still ambivalent about his powerful attraction to his friend, plays the role of Judas, leading him into the barn (the very place where he and Reis had had their trysts) to the other boys who are to beat him, almost kill him, for being different.

At the time of Christian's return, we get to see Reis these many years later --- angry, broken, having spent much time in jail, with all the brutality of prison, a man who can tell his one-time friend,

    Funny how when you're in jail you learn the value of things you ordinarily would take for granted," he says. "Trade there is the way, see. If you don't got nothin' to trade, you don't exist. So you better find something or invent it or steal it or you won't have enough of your guts left inside you by the end of a week to wish you were dead."

The brilliance of this novel is that it takes us into the head of a boy who will grow up to be gay --- but at that early time, when boys have to be men, he is not only willing to pretend he is straight, he is willing to lead his lover into a place where he will be brutalized and beaten. And we know, from the way that Reis returns to the story, that his near-murder is what has led him in a different direction --- to thievery, to living on the outside of the law, perhaps arson, to prison.

Swanson brings all this off because he is a fine writer --- his words flow out like a summer day. The reader goes along because the writing is so easy, the book so light with structure, and tone. It's the rare new writer --- this is Swanson's second novel --- for whom words are not something to be beaten to death, but are allowed to flow, coming to the cold clear lake, so we can watch it all uniting, merging into people so much like us, so easily twisted, by fear, from gentleness and loving-kindness to cruelty and destruction.

--- Pat Worley

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