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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

World Without End

Shannon Huffman Polson
North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey
(Zondervan, 2013)

I work in publishing, so I may pay undue attention to a book’s packaging. Still, it seems a disservice to categorize Shannon Huffman Polson’s North of Hope under Religion/Spiritual Growth. The label far from encompasses the subject matter. Really, Polson’s work is a grief memoir concerning the loss of her father. While on a trip down the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2005, Polson’s father, Rich, and his wife, Kathy, were attacked and killed by a bear. A year later, Polson, along with her adopted brother Ned, and Ned’s coworker set out to complete the journey Rich and Kathy never finished. Despite its subtitle, A Daughter’s Arctic Journey, the book has more to do with Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking than with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Although Polson’s religious beliefs are a means for understanding and coping with the tragedy—“It would be easier not to believe in God,” she reflects, “It would be easier not to have to make sense of this”—the work is a primarily an evaluation of her relationship with her family, specifically her father, in the aftermath of his death.

The challenge of grief memoirs is that the reader has no relationship with the dead. And yet Polson manages to depict her father and the evolution of their relationship with remarkable fullness. Polson’s consistent evocation of shared moments, realizations about her father’s identity, and her regrets emphasize his absence. She skillfully portrays the ways in which her father changed, not just in relation to her, but over the course of his own life—his existence not just as a father, but as a man. The same cannot be said of her depictions of anyone else. Although this is the story of Polson’s relationship with her father, the lack of depth in her portrayals of Kathy, who is flatly and repeatedly described as smiling and laughing, and Ned, is, at the very least, frustrating. The complications of Ned’s verbally abusive relationship with Polson are only hinted at, yet one of the book’s most dramatic scenes involves a confrontation in which Ned threatens Polson’s life. Given the complexity of this relationship, it should have figured into the memoir either much more prominently or not at all.

Still, Polson’s highly personal narrative is engaging, partially because of its creative structure. While the memoir’s primary storyline chronicles the trio’s 2006 Hulahula trip, Polson interweaves chapters describing her preparation for a vocal performance of Mozart’s Requiem, the experience that lead her to embark on the river voyage. That Polson begins her journey down the Hulahula almost exactly a year after the tragedy highlights the chasm that these deaths created; every step on the trip refers back to the previous year’s. This constant comparison effectively illustrates that “there is no common ground between before and after,” as Geneviéve Jurgensen writes in The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss. The last e-mail Polson received from her father gave their satellite phone number, “details we would need to look for them, to identify a campsite.” Polson can approximate where on the river Rich and Kathy had stopped when they’d called her on Father’s Day in 2005, the last conversation they would ever have. And the entries from the travel journal recovered from their ravaged campsite, which Polson reads during her journey, underscore the tragedy of the suddenness: “I remembered with a flash of pain and derision Kathy’s last journal entry on June 23, her last written words: ‘Lord, keep us safe.’” These juxtapositions—expressive and simple—communicate both profound longing for a mutable past and the recognition that hindsight, in this case, is futile.

And yet, there exists at least a continuity of time: “here were two worlds apart, yet one,” Polson writes, describing an Arctic landscape. Polson’s journey is an odyssey, not least because it carries the idea of a return. In fact, nature, religion, and ancient traditions play such an important role in the narrative because they are either symbols or means of establishing the continuity that Polson craves. The use of nature as a site both of renewal and rebirth is familiar, and it seems that Polson relied on her faith to provide the same hope. The communion she performs—with wine and wafers blessed by her priest in Seattle—at her parents’s last campsite is, as she describes it, a “communion not bound by matters as small as breath.” The construction of a cairn is a manifestation of that same pursuit—a joining of past and present through ritual. The hymn that repeatedly figures in Didion’s 2005 memoir comes to mind: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

One of the startling parallels between the two works is how highly allusive both authors are. Like Didion, Polson clearly read a lot about others’ experiences with grief and cites these works throughout the text. Maybe because there is a dearth of words. Three of Polson’s themes—the terror and magnificence of the wilderness, her relationship with music, and the experience of grief—are practically ineffable. Words are inherently filters, and they necessarily circumscribe emotions. Polson’s awareness of the problem, sadly, does not save her from an overreliance on metaphoric imagery that always leads back to her—“a sticky web of determination, horror, fear, exhilaration, and desperation held me fast, even as the river ran freely”—and on the cliché of the unfinished sentence as a substitute for meaning—“Staying true to that hope and my faith was the map. Endurance. Tenacity.” But a one-word sentence does not necessarily express anything. And Polson knows the challenge before her: she prefaces her work with an epigraph taken from the poem “This Mind of Dying,” by Christian Wiman, that reads, “My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language / to a fear that I can bear.” It is apt. 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues