The Arctic: is it just a thing you discover?

26 November 2013

By Pan Macmillan

M. J. McGrath's novels White Heat, The Boy in the Snow and The Bone Seeker make up the Edie Kiglatuk Mysteries. Here she revels in the enormity of the place she chose to set her novels, the Arctic. 

In the popular children's story, honey-loving Winnie-the-Pooh bear asks Christopher Robin, ‘What is the North Pole?’ Not quite sure of himself Christopher Robin replies, ‘Just a thing you discover.’

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the Arctic, which the North Pole tops, is precisely the way it has resisted discovery. Ellesmere, the High Arctic Island that forms the setting for my novel The Bone Seeker and most of the Edie Kiglatuk mysteries, was only fully mapped in the 1970s and there are parts of its interior still where no man or woman, not even my doughty heroine Edie herself, has ever set foot. The Arctic is the setting for my mystery series but it’s also a series of mysteries.

To get back to the Arctic as a setting: this was a no-brainer. I’d travelled to the Arctic in my previous life as a journalist and nonfiction writer and I knew better than most just how many of its stories – big stories with epic qualities – hadn’t yet been told and probably couldn’t ever be told, except as fiction. I saw how the place pushes people to the edge of who they are, I saw how it was full of people who belonged deeply to it and to people who were on the run and how the people who belonged were sore about the newcomers and the newcomers often preferred it that way. I saw people viscerally attuned to violence. It was there every day in the din of cracking ice and frost heave and avalanche. It was there at mealtimes when the meat came up raw and there when a hunter returned with something for his family or didn’t return at all. It was there in the hunting games children played and in the video games they thumbed. It was there on the bone-littered tundra, where nothing rots and there is nowhere and everywhere to hide; and in the tracks of wolves in the snow and in the skittering of caribou. Most of all it was there in the pace of change.

“The Arctic isn’t only a place. It’s a state of mind,
a way of looking at the world, a shortcut to the soul”

I’m not just talking about the change chewed over every day in the newspapers and on the TV: the melting of the ice, the opening up of oil fields, gas reserves, diamond mines, pipe lines. I mean the other changes, the ones that result from the familiar change, but don’t get talked about. People used to love to talk and dream about the Wild West. Still do. But it’s an antiquated idea. These days, all the wildness has headed north to join the greater, wilder wildness already there. I’m talking about the refugees from bad marriages and worse habits, the parole evaders, the witness protection zombies, the drunks, the dreamers, the no longer-great white explorers, the loners and the freaks.

The Arctic now has a per capita homicide rate about equal to that of South Africa or Mexico. And something like 400 policeman in an area roughly the size of India. Until recently, a single specialist crime investigator covered the whole of Arctic Canada. And there are tensions between incomers and Inuit and between Inuit and other indigenous groups like the Cree and the Tlingit; between conservation and resource extraction, jobs and subsistence, and between the old ways and the new.

It’s a fertile place to set a murder mystery for all these reasons but above everything because the Arctic is itself being murdered, slowly but inexorably, and about this murder, one of the greatest and most terrible of our times, there can be no mystery. We already know whodunnit.

The writer Glendon Brunk wrote ‘I knew that I would always want more of this kind of space and primordial wild…have you ever seen a landscape so large, so empty, yet in another way so very full.’ But for me that didn’t quite capture it because the Arctic isn’t only a place. It’s a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, a shortcut to the soul. In his wonderful, humane masterpiece, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote that ‘no culture has yet solved the dilemma how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.’ For centuries the Arctic has lived in our dreams as the place that forces men and women to look cleanly at themselves, often for the first time, to unknow what they thought they understood about the world and start again with new eyes.

In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes that ‘sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.’ And no one is ever more alive or ever more fully present in the drama of their own story than when they are standing at the top of the world, looking out across the ice. And so when Winnie-the-Pooh asked Christopher Robin, ‘What is the North Pole?’ it was fitting that Christopher Robin should grow uncertain of himself and how right, how exact and how perfect his reply: ‘Just a thing you discover.’

M. J. McGrath is on Twitter @mcgrathmj. Main picture: Ellesmere Island (c) M. J. McGrath