Recent Reading: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

by Sunita

I had planned on posting much more frequently starting January 2019, since I’m not teaching this semester. Hah. Oh well, at least I’ve been reading.

I finally finished Minds of Winter, which I bought when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. I restarted it several times because I’d pick it up and put it down and then not remember what I’d read. It’s a big, sprawling book, covering many characters, time periods, and even continents, so it helps to read it steadily. But it’s too big (500 pages) to read all at once!

I finally acknowledged that if I didn’t make it a reading project I wasn’t ever going to finish it. And I did want to. So I skimmed the first 100 pages (again) and then settled in. Readers, the journey was well worth the effort.

There are two storylines. One is made up of various polar explorations, starting with Sir John Franklin’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the disappearance of his crew and ship. Somewhat confusingly, the historical storyline starts in Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), where Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor before his last voyage. Eventually that authorial decision makes sense to the reader, because other important characters are introduced. This storyline moves on to cover the expeditions in search of Franklin’s ship as well as other polar explorations. It’s very wide-ranging and often confusing to those of us who aren’t steeped in Shackleton, Franklin, and Arctic/Antarctic lore. But hang in there because it really does come together in the end in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.

The second storyline is set in the present. It only has two main characters, but it is sometimes even more baffling than the historical parts. Two strangers meet in the depths of winter in northernmost Canada, each looking for someone/something which has gone missing. Nelson Nilsson is looking for his brother, Fay Morgan for the history of a chronometer that seems to have been in the possession of her equally mysterious grandfather. The chronometer is a McGuffin, bringing together Fay and Nilsson, their pasts and present, and the pasts of even more explorers and adventurers.

If you are familiar with any of these historical periods the reading will go more easily. If you’re not (and I’m closer to the latter end of this spectrum), the best way to approach the novel is to give yourself up to it, flip back and forth when you need to, and just read the story. Don’t try to make sense of everything. And don’t expect the contemporary storyline to be completely transparent either. O’Loughlin has a lot going on in this novel and it takes a lot of pages to bring everything to fruition.

I’m making it sound like a hard read, and in some ways it is, but in others it’s really not. There are many, many books on exploration, including a lot of novels, especially in the last decade or so as more ships and missing artifacts have been discovered. What this novel brings to the table is a strong theme of how our discoveries have both enlarged and constrained us, and how sometimes people just disappear (not only literally but in history and memory). By the time we find out what happened to Fay’s grandfather, we are a century away from Sir John but our increasing knowledge may also take away some of our wonder at the unknown. It’s a message that really resonates for me; just as adults lose the wonder of the new that characterizes childhood, scientific advances explain phenomena in ways that can take away not just their mystery but the roles they’ve played in our world.

That’s not to say the novel is anti-science, far from it. It’s more that it made me think of what the tradeoffs are, and it also makes me glad that we keep venturing out into the unknown. I’m not much of a romantic, but this book made me appreciate the romance of exploration in a way that nonfiction often does not.

I read the bulk of this novel in Alaska in January, which gave the setting a particular resonance for me. And that resonance was amplified because I was in Anchorage in part to catalogue my father-in-law’s book collection, the most valuable parts of which involve polar exploration and Captain James Cook’s many adventures. I would read about Franklin and his lost ships in Minds of Winter and then catalogue a dozen or more books about the same thing. The novel brought the books alive for me in a way they hadn’t been before. It was a poignant experience, and I regret I never took the opportunity to talk at length with my father-in-law about it. And I’m pretty sure he would have enjoyed Minds of Winter.