I’m reading a book, and not under duress. I know, right? Years and years of reading student papers, researching for and then editing my own work, and now reading for a living (yes, I do that) kind of wore out my reading glands, so to speak, though once upon a time I was a voracious reader. In spite of this, I have always retained an interest in “adventure stories,” but they aren’t really stories at all. They are the adventures of real people told by the real people themselves.
One of my all time favorites is My Life at the Limit by Reinhold Messner. Another is Jon Krakauer’s book which begins with his narration of his failed attempt on the Eiger North Face, Eiger Dreams. One of my four “desert island books” is George Schaller’s Stones of Silence. But I would not have known of George Schaller (I got to hear him speak about China and pandas sometime in the late 80s!) if I hadn’t read Peter Mathiessin’s The Snow Leopard.
The very first book of this nature that I read sat on my little girl lap as I rode the train from Billings to Denver, sitting on the little porch on back of the train, watching June-green Wyoming swoosh by all around me. It was Seven League Boots by Richard Halliburton. It had come to me out of an old trunk in which my mom had stored her books. The trunk was then in my grandmother’s cellar, but now it’s in my bedroom. The book is on my shelf with the other adventure stories.
One of the best (of the few) books of this nature written by a woman I’ve found (until now) is West with the Night by Beryl Markham. It was splendid. The title of the book I’m about to recommend quotes Beryl Markham in its title, “I learned to wander I learned what every dreaming child needs to know–that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”
As soon as I opened I, I knew immediately that this is a book I have been looking for all my life.
I’ve thought a lot about what stories would be like if they didn’t center on a boy and girl getting married and living happily ever after, but, instead, the female hero went off and did something, or lived a complex life on her own. I even thought of trying to write it, but realized that the normal happy story has an optimistic simplicity we all yearn for. I saw clearly that we all live complex lives, and the happy ending story is relaxing (I’m enjoying it now watching film versions of Jane Austen novels). At least in my generation, and before, women usually played supporting roles, and some of the active drama of our lives was going to be our struggle to BE in a world dominated by men.
I didn’t create the scenario that was, and in a way I never even believed it even though I was living it. Human society moves forward but not all at once and I get that. Still, I wondered what all my favorite stories would sound like if they were told by women because Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae) was right; men’s stories are straight lines. Women’s stories are more amorphous. George Mallory could say, “Because it is there.” That’s not a woman’s response to that question. A woman? “Well, there are a lot of reasons. Of course, because it’s there and it’s a mountain, but the experience itself is certain to test me and teach me. I believe I will learn lessons that I might be able to share with others when I come back. Of course, I might not come back, but a person needs to test herself to know who she really is. I deeply value the camaraderie between me and the team. I wouldn’t be anywhere without their enthusiasm — our shared enthusiasm. That means so much to me. That’s a reason right there to attempt this mountain. And you would not BELIEVE all we will see just getting there!”
You get the idea.
I saw a mention of No Horizon So Far somewhere and thought, “That’s my kind of book.” And there it was, a story like this told by women? Be still my heart. It’s beautifully constructed. Two women cross Antarctica by their own power (and wind if they’re lucky). Each woman tells her tale and the two voices are quietly narrated by their editor, Cheryl Dahle. From the very first page, I was in love with this book. I was thrilled when I learned that both of the adventurers are teachers and thought of their adventure not only as a cool thing to do, as a first for women, but as a way to inspire their students. It’s a major theme of both their expedition and their book. At one point Arnesen makes the point — while Bancroft is on the phone with CNN — that even though they were electronically connected to the whole world, if anything happened to them in the middle of the frozen waste, no one could come to help them.
Bancroft writes about her struggle to be an athlete in a world where women didn’t “do” sports. While she was in high school, Title IX was passed and she immediately began fighting for sports at her high school. I wept when I read that passage. Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows of my struggle to become an REAL athlete. I had the potential, but not the permission. That didn’t stop me from running, and I think a lot of women like me just went on to do our thing, anyway. Arnesen, being from Norway, grew up in a culture with a different perspective regarding girls and athletics. Skadi, after all.
And then I read this. This echoes the feelings of my own heart.
P.S. Another migraine, so if there is some strange writing in here, let me know… I’ve learned that asthma triggers migraines. Cold air and weather changes trigger asthma. I had this situation the first year I lived here. OH well…