Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.
I’ve never been satisfied with sayings like you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Why bother having the saying if the meaning isn’t possible to apply preemptively? I am a firm proponent of learning one’s lesson as soon as possible; the best way to do this, I think, is with as much borrowed example as possible, by learning from other people’s mistakes, and by learning from made-up people’s mistakes. Maybe we learn dramatically fast by doing. But if every individual must do before they can with any validity not do, then the world is going to stay cruel. I value How to Survive in the North for support on this platform alone. It’s a story about a man changing because he read a story about stubbornness.
This is a beautiful and quiet book. Sun on snow, and isolation: these are quiet things, emphasising vulnerability. Sometimes isolation is enforced by violent accident, sometimes it’s enforced by personal weakness. When can we claim the circumstances we find ourselves in are, or ever were, “out of our hands”?
Two stories entwine, one nestled in the other. Sully, a tenured professor, makes a mess of his life and is put on an enforced sabbatical. Bored, alone–lonely–he happens upon a name. It’s the name of a stranger, almost totally irrelevant to him, but it’s a name he doesn’t know. A new person, a blank slate, and a representation of time, otherness, escape, record. Researchers gotta research. Investigating this name (a real one: V. Stefansson) leads him to the diary of an (likewise real: Ada Blackjack) indigenous Canadian woman on one of Stefansson’s ill-fated, early twentieth century expeditions to the North Pole. As the true history is turned, through our viewing of Sully’s imaginative processing, into contemporary graphic historical docudrama, details of Sully’s fictitious life unfold to allow the reader grave reflection on their own real-as-Ada responsibilities. As above, so below–Sully grows thanks to his experience with Ada Blackjack’s diary, challenging the notion that genuine growth is unlinked to receipt of example and must wait for personal experience of “genuine” consequences. As the reader, you can grow because one character didn’t or you can grow because one character did. Or you can not grow at all; you’re the boss of you.
Sully’s big mistake (the thing that led to his “gap year” of tenure) is not a forgivable matter. We cannot, with integrity, create any excuses for him transgression. But the quiet book ekes the details of his wrongness out so slowly, in such layered context of Sully’s adulterated perspective and with such observant nuance, that the character, concurrently with becoming a well-constructed person, becomes a humble piece of wisdom. Whatever you’re doing, however bad it is, you can stop. You can stop right now. The choice to stop is yours. And Sully does. Of course, it helps that the unforgiveability is front-loaded; we’re four scenes into his story before we see what it is he was doing. Between these, death, dying, and doom: scenes from later portions of Stefansson and crew’s stories, plucked out, to introduce the ill atmosphere Sully’s pickling himself in as we find him.
We may not need to “do” before we can “not do,” but we also do not need to have not done before we can stop doing. Every moment is a fresh opportunity to be less bad than you were, simply by adding minute-blocks to the Neutral pile. You may be a person who does no harm today if you are also a person who, yesterday, did harm. “Stop making excuses!” I hear from How to Survive in the North. But there’s no withering glare to go with it.
To be quite honest, Healy’s choice to make Professor Sullivan (Sully) and his boyfriend (a student–that’s the mistake, that’s the bad thing) both fat increases the impression of care taken, purpose embedded, sensationalism avoided. When the default drawn body is thin, and we know in comics and elsewhere that this is so, the depiction of fat bodies is recognisable as a choice. When choice and intention is fore-fronted, reflection is a natural response. In the hellish context of our fatphobia, it’s nourishing to see fat people’s lives given primacy, dimension, humanity, and responsibility, and for their fatness to be irrelevant beyond its metatextual remarkability.
How to Survive in the North is a little under nine inches tall and favours rather small panels, often twelve to a page. Subsequently, everything within it seems to take place at great distance. Anatomy is plasticiney, clothes lack details, and actions are simplified for clarity–rather like the motion in Pingu or the movements of Fireman Sam, children’s programmes, which exist to comfort and educate. We’re seeing through time. We’re seeing through the wrong end of a telescope. We’re seeing the terrible hugeness of the Arctic. Perspective is all wrong in both these stories, and I like it very much.
The reality of Stefansson, Bartlett, and Blackjack’s threads of the past is covered in a short Introduction. Text-only, all just a bunch of dates and names–impossible to follow, for me, a visual learner more inclined to narrative than spreadsheet. And I like this very much too, because knowing that part of the book is real is important; it lends a poignancy and an interactive reality, but not really knowing who is who “in history”–not really knowing who is remembered well, who is officially the hero–freed up the liminal nature of any historical fiction enough to make it realer. If I can find my own interpretation of which small blob man is nice, which is responsible, which is cruel, without relying on the reality-markers of their names, I feel more respectful of history as a relic. Historic record covers the facts, but it can’t truly evoke people; tics, thoughts, and dreams are lost with life. So in that way, “history” as a solemn chronology, as a matter of fact, naturally fails.
Embrace Rashomon! All of history is just people as stupid and wonderful as the ones you know now. Even great adventures, even disasters at sea. Maybe Ada Blackjack in real life would have read this book and cried, “Who the hell is this? She’s not me. She’s nothing like me.” But the idea of these things happening to “a character,” a character to whose creation Luke Healey gave creative rein, a character who specifically reacts like this and that, allows the brain to soften up and realise that the things happening to the character happened to a person, any person to whom it happened would have to find their own way to deal. By loosening one’s surveillance on fact, truth drifts into focus. (It’s just a matter of perspective.)
The soft, beautiful, sherbet colours say, let it go. Let it go. Relax, my pal. It’s up to you, and if you take it, you got this. Let people be people. Accept nuance. Take your responsibilities. Pick when to say die and when not to.
Hard is not impossible. Figure out how to survive in the north.