919: The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna

by Gerard

919: Kavenna, Joanna. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule. New York: Viking, 2006. 291 pp. ISBN 0-670-03473-8.

For the first book, we start with a number way down at the bottom (or end) of the listing. The 900s cover geography and history; 910s specifically cover geography and travel books. Since the DDC is so wonderfully predictable, and countries or areas of the world are always put in order the same way, the last section is always the catch-all for “other parts of the world”. 499 is languages of other parts of the world, 319 is general collection of statistics of other parts of the world. And here, 919 is geography and travel in other parts of the world.

Pytheas was an ancient Greek geographer and explorer. He made his way from Greece, out of the Mediterranean Sea, up the coast to Europe, and circumnavigated Britain. In his travels around Britain, he mentioned a land named Thule, an interesting land where the sun sets and semi-mythical occurrences abound. Unfortunately, his navigational journals do not give modern-day explorers much certainty as to where Thule was, so throughout the ages, explorers have sought out clues to its location in an effort to reconnect with the men of the past.

Joanna Kavenna goes on such a quest. Her book, The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, is a journey through all the places (and events) supposed to be Thule. One day, while contemplating her life in London, she decides to quit and seek out the Arctic adventure she’d dreamed about in her youth. Her path takes her from Scotland to Shetland to Iceland to Norway. From there, she goes to Estonia, then to Greenland, and lastly to Svalbard.

At each locale, she dutifully records her impressions of the landscape and the people, sometimes assuming a more cynical tone than most. She takes the writings of past explorers with her and gives the reader a wonderful sense of adventure that Sir Richard Burton and Fridtjof Nansen experiences on their journeys to the north.

There are distractions, however. Kavenna spends, I think, a bit too much time on the Thule Society, its role in the formation of the Nazi Party, and the after-effects of Nazi social policies in Norway. While this does complete the catalog of all things and places named Thule, it has very little to do with geography and even less to do with Thule itself. She even makes a brief pit stop at Thule Air Base in Greenland to round out her collection even though it’s just a military base and she takes time away from those who are trying to keep their eyes on ballistic missile warning systems.

On the whole, the reader gets a good sense of the pure emptiness and sublime nature of life and lands above the Arctic circle.

On with the journey…