Seven Continents Challenge – Anarctica

chasing-the-light

Book two in my Seven Continents Challenge complete! Chasing the Light: A Novel of Antarctica, by Jesse Blackadder, admittedly spent most of its time in Norway and at sea, but I loved the opportunity to explore the world of 1930’s Norwegian exploration (and whaling) through the eyes of three unusual Norwegian women caught up in the race to be the first woman to set foot on Antarctica.

One of the women, Ingrid Christensen (the wife of Norwegian whaling magnate Lars Christensen) ended up with a whole coast of Antarctica named after her – but would you believe there’s hardly any information about her available online? And yes, I was trying to spoil the ending by finding out who the winner was — I failed, so I just had finish reading the book.

Another of the women, Lillimor Rachlew, was a Norwegian living in London high society who met Amelia Earhart right near the beginning, used female contraceptive and was desperate to be the first woman to do something (anything really)! Through her storyline I discovered that there was a wealthy American woman named Louise Arner Boyd who had already spend much time and money exploring the North Pole region by this period of history.

The final competitor was Mathilde Wegger, mother of two who had lost her husband a year before and was thoroughly, clinically depressed. She didn’t even want to be on the expedition, but her husbands parents had given her an ultimatum – go to Antarctica or go to an asylum. I think they hoped she’d die so they could keep the kids.

What I learned from this? Antarctic waters are cold, full of icebergs and incredibly dangerous. Women in the 1930’s were just as determined to explore and discover new things as their male counterparts, but it was significantly harder for them to do so. In fact, in 1937, over 1300 women applied to join the British Antarctic Expedition, but none were accepted. Also, whaling is horrible… and really sad… and, well, I guess you can’t really condemn whaling without condemning all forms of farming for meat on those ethical grounds, but there is also the totally unsustainable thing – which was a theme running underneath this story of exploration. Definitely makes you think.

And the book itself? Interesting, though it took me a while to finish. I didn’t like the main characters all that much, except perhaps Mathilde, who started out depressed and found her strength over the course of the voyage – she was kinda cool. I also kept wondering, with such strong characterization, if these women shared anything at all in common with their real life counterparts – I suppose it’s impossible to know.

I did appreciate that Blackadder ended the book with a discussion of her research and the facts as she could ascertain them (much different in places to her portrayal in the novel). I certainly feel I’ve earned an interesting glimpse into a moment in time that I can build on with further reading and research.

And now, onto book three of my challenge – Asia!

Seven Continents Challenge – Africa

I did it! First book in the seven continents book challenge complete. I read “An Affair with Africa” by Alzada Carlisle Kistner. It’s the memoirs of a woman who longs for adventure and finds it travelling Africa on multiple expeditions during the 1960’s and early 1970’s – alongside her husband, a world expert on the beetles who live in ant and termite colonies. I chose this book because it traversed so much of Africa during a time of political upheaval. I liked that the author was a woman defying gender-norms (to a certain extent) by leaving her baby at home with grandparents to go adventuring – though this is not necessarily a decision I would make for myself…

Travelling across Africa with Alzada, I marveled at the way her American nationality and white skin acted as free passes to so many things. She and her husband survived the beginning of the Congo civil war, just by putting an American flag on the window of their jeep. They frequently explored the outback with a handful of black servants or ‘helpers’ loaned to them by friends or sponsors (like the diamond company in Angola). While occasionally surprised or even shocked by the treatment of black people by their white ‘masters’, this couple (and their two daughters) mostly chose to accept the way things were in order to keep the peace and get on with their very important scientific research. They seemed nearly oblivious, at times, to the nature of the political situation surrounding them, and disinclined to enter into any sort of moralizing. I wondered if this was partially a product of the times they were living in? During the 1960’s there was still segregation & discrimination in parts of the USA, and it seemed that, as scientists, they were somehow separate / above needing to engage with the politics in any personal way.

I’m not sure how I feel about this book, having come to the end. It was an interesting account of a family and a time, and I certainly learned quite a lot about the ants, termites, large mammals and scenery of different parts of Africa. I even got a really interesting glimpse into the White African experience in the last years before most of those colonies collapsed. The author expressed sadness for the fate of such beautiful countries, lost to civil war (and incidentally no longer accessible for specimen collection), but I’m not convinced she felt much empathy for the experiences of those who had to live there. Her ‘affair’ with Africa was with the land, the beautiful animals and the (mostly white) friends she made. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, the next book I read about Africa needs to be by an African. I read and loved “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo – so if anyone can recommend another book along those lines, I’ll add it to my list!!

Only six more continents to go. I will have to extend my deadline as it takes me longer to read grown-up books than I thought it would.

Read Around the World

World Map

At the library, we’re all about promoting diversity, and that comes in so many different flavors. I’ve realized that until now, I’ve mostly been reading Sci Fi / Fantasy and Young Adult Novels – so I’m going to commit to doing something a bit different. Over the next month, I will read a book set in each of the following continents:

  • North America
  • South America
  • Europe
  • Asia
  • Africa
  • Australia
  • Antarctica

Fear not… I’ll be taking on other kinds of diversity in upcoming months. Here goes nothing!