Under a Pole Star

Written by Stef Penney
Review by Janet Hancock

This book has the makings of a five-star screen weepy in the vein of M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. Flora Mackie, daughter of a Dundee whaling captain, first crosses the Arctic Circle in 1883 at the age of twelve. The land and its people enchant her, and she determines to become a scientist and explorer. Despite her struggle to be taken seriously, chance returns her to northern Greenland at the head of a British expedition. She is 20 years old. Impulsive, elusive geologist Jakob de Beyn, raised in Manhattan by stern Lutheran uncle Seppe, first discovers ice at the age of six in the water barrel for morning ablutions. Twenty years later, weary of surveying the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, he joins a polar expedition led by ruthless Lester Armitage the same year as Flora sets out. The reader is drawn in, carried along, certain Jakob and Flora are going to meet and that it will be significant. They do, on page 192. And it is, eventually.

Yet, the book is so much more than this. The land of the Eskimos is evoked until it becomes a character: a place of violent extremes, the timeless beauty of frozen seas and coastal summer meadows, of perpetual night and endless day, where pack ice can crush a ship like an eggshell. The author’s use of language is exquisite in its description of colour, texture, and the play of light on surfaces. The book studies the dark side of the so-called golden age of polar exploration, the corrosive power of ambition, and a mystery that Flora—returning one last time to the pole in her seventies—will finally lay to rest. Beautifully done.