Tag Archives: Geraldine McCaughrean

Books Within Books

When I was at university, a hundred million years ago, there was a lot of talk about ‘intertextuality’ on my English courses – the idea that, essentially, every text which exists carries within it the influences of a great many other texts, whether deliberately or not, and that the reader also brings their own experiences of other texts to their reading of everything they encounter. It’s a fascinating idea and I whiled away many hours daydreaming – I mean, doing intense research – on the topic.

The Eye of the North, while most definitely being a book which sprang from my head, is no exception to this idea of intertextuality. The seeds which eventually brought it to fruition were sown over many years, and the basic outline of the tale began over fifteen years ago. It’s silly to think that the books I’ve read – of which there have been many – played no part in the shaping of the book I would eventually write; I have long been fascinated, too, by the polar regions and their history. There are a few books, however, which I could point to as having had a direct impact on my writing of The Eye of the North, and here they are.

1. The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP Children’s, 2005)

I love a great many books, and there are few I love more than this one. The spine of my copy is creased like an old boot, such are the rigours I have put it to over the years. I read it in my twenties, long after I had first come up with the basics of The Eye of the North, but the reading of this book has definitely helped to flesh out my own mental idea of what the polar regions might be like – despite the fact, of course, that The White Darkness is about Antarctica, and not the Arctic. It tells the story of Sym, a girl who is taken on a trip to the South Pole by her strange uncle, a man who has definite nefarious intentions, and her struggle to survive there when things go pear-shaped – but what I love about this book more than anything is Sym’s unwavering devotion to Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, who was one of the brave men on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is he who uttered the fateful words ‘I am just going outside; I may be some time’, as he sacrificed his own life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to save those of his comrades, and it is he who accompanies Sym, inside her mind, as she navigates her daily life. The book begins with her declaring her love for Captain Oates, despite the fact that he has been dead for over ninety years, and I am never left unmoved by the very real relationship between them, even though Sym knows, on some level, that the Captain Oates in her head is merely her own imagination and not the real man himself.

But then, how does he tell her things she wouldn’t have known any other way?

This book is a wonder. I heartily recommend it, as I do most things that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.

the-white-darkness

Cover of ‘The White Darkness’, OUP Children’s Books, 2005

2. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna (Viking Books, 2005)

This is a travelogue, of sorts, as well as an exploration of myth and legend surrounding the North of the world, most particularly the idea of ‘Thule’, long thought to be the most northerly outpost in existence. Mentioned in texts going back centuries, it nevertheless proved impossible to pin down exactly where Thule was; some thought it was the Orkneys or the Shetland Islands; others Iceland; others Greenland, or Estonia, or a variety of places dotted around the northern regions of our planet. Some thought it was entirely made up. Kavenna, in her book, takes us through the whole Arctic region, exploring not only the landscape around her but also her own mind and heart as she searches for the mystical lost land. It’s a love letter to the Arctic, which deepened my own passion for it, and it ticked all my boxes: maps, medievalish stuff, myths, legends, ice, and exploration. It’s been years since I revisited The Ice Museum, and it’s high time I went back.

3. The Cruellest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Years ago, I worked in a bookshop, and when things were quiet I used to while away my time by cleaning and sorting the stock. In our World History section, a slim volume with a navy spine kept catching my eye. One payday, I walked straight over to it and bought it, and I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story it told. It’s the story of Nome, an isolated town in Alaska, which was ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, when supplies of antitoxin serum had run dangerously low. Children were dying, and unless more antitoxin serum could be brought in, an epidemic would begin to rage. Nome, at that time, was more or less unreachable for months on end, and the only way to get the serum to the town was to use a chain of dogsled teams, who battled heroically through the worst conditions imaginable to rescue the children and people of Nome. I named a character in The Eye of the North after Balto, one of the dogs who was part of the lifesaving effort, and I have been passionately interested in dogsledding ever since reading this book. It made me cry on a packed train, though. I warn you, in case you want to read it yourself – prepare to have your emotions put through the wringer.

the-cruellest-miles

Cover of The Cruellest Miles (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, Bloomsbury, 2004)

4. The Arctic, ed. Elizabeth Kolbert, Volume I of The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, eds. Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, (Granta Books, 2007)

I will admit I haven’t read all of this, as it’s an anthology of writing designed to be dipped into, but its introduction is a great statement on climate change and the danger of global warming, particularly the damage it’s doing to the polar regions. The pieces in this anthology are varied both in style and emphasis, and it’s a great wide-ranging look at the idea of the Arctic as a place, as a challenge, and as an idea.

So, there you have it. Every book I’ve read has, no doubt, left its traces on my mind and imagination and I’m sure there are many more books than these which I could point to as being part of the culture that went into the creation of The Eye of the North. It’s interesting to trace the journeys that the books you love take you on, though, both internal and external; certainly, without my love of books – and the fact that I was encouraged to read from an early age – I wouldn’t have cultivated the mindset to write one of my own. It’s great to feel that my own small contribution might sit among these books one day, and might even spur someone else on in their love of the yawning ice-fields of the far north – so long as you beware what you might find living deep in the ancient glacier…

 

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The White Darkness’

This week’s book is a relative ‘oldie’; the edition I have was published in 2005. However, I’ve chosen to review it because I am currently completely obsessed with the Polar regions, and also because Geraldine McCaughrean’s ‘The White Darkness’ was one of those books which made me really, truly want to be a writer.

I mean, I’d always wanted to be a writer. But this book, along with several others, opened my eyes to how imaginative a novel can be, and how emotionally affecting. Geraldine McCaughrean is a legend, of course, who has written more books than most people have read, and I’ll never be on a par with her, but still. Her way with words, and her ability to tell a story, are a huge inspiration.

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

The first cool thing about ‘The White Darkness’ is this: the main character, Symone, is hearing impaired, but it doesn’t hold her back from having the adventure of a lifetime. The second cool thing is this: she gets to travel to the South Pole as part of the story. But the third, and coolest, thing about this story is: it features Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. In case you don’t know who that is, I’ll tell you – Captain Oates was the famous explorer who is credited with saying ‘I am just going outside. I may be some time,’ on the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Captain Scott. The men were lost, starving, and dying of exposure, and Captain Oates felt he was holding them back, so he walked out into a blizzard in order to try to save their lives by forcing them to go on without him.

Tragically, of course, his sacrifice was in vain, because all the explorers perished anyway. His famous last words live on only in Scott’s journal. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an extremely brave thing to do, though, and it has gone down in history as an act of heroism.

In case you haven’t guessed already, I have a ‘thing’ for Polar exploration, and the story of Captain Oates has always interested me. Geraldine McCaughrean takes the character of Captain Oates – because the way he appears in this book, he is a ‘character’; it’s not the ‘real’ Captain Oates – and weaves him into the life of a modern teenager. Symone, you see, is in love with Captain Oates, and has been for years.

I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way – in ninety years I’ll be dead, too, and then the age difference won’t matter. (Page 1)

Captain Oates – or, at the very least, an imagining of him – lives in Sym’s head. They talk to one another, and he keeps her company through some very challenging life events. He is her source of comfort and support, her advisor and her guide. She has lost her father and is under the influence of the decidedly weird ‘Uncle’ Victor, who is a family friend and not a blood relative. The story begins when Victor decides that Sym and her mother are coming with him on a trip to Paris. However, as they prepare to leave, Sym’s mother realises her passport is missing. That leaves Sym, and Uncle Victor, alone. And it isn’t Paris he wants to bring her to, either – it’s the South Pole.

So why does it emerge that Uncle Victor has hidden Sym’s mother’s passport? Why does he want Sym – and Sym alone – to join him in what turns out to be less of an exploration than a quest? Uncle Victor is looking for something, something he truly believes exists at the South Pole, and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone and anything, including Sym, to get to it.

In Antarctica, Sym’s relationship with her uncle begins to unravel, but – worse still – her connection to Oates begins to disappear, too. He doesn’t want to return to Antarctica, the place where he ‘died’; the trip causes him huge grief. It places a massive strain on their connection, the most treasured thing that Sym possesses. I love the way McCaughrean handles this plot device, because it’s clear that Sym knows Titus isn’t real – she knows he’s dead, and that the voice she hears in her mind isn’t really his. And yet she loves him, and she needs him, and there are hints dropped all over the place that there’s more to Titus’ voice than just Sym’s imagination. All in all, it’s a heartrending and emotional relationship and (speaking as a person who was slightly obsessed with W.B. Yeats as a teenager, despite the fact that he was quite dead at the time), one I could entirely understand and get on board with. Not only did it highlight Sym’s isolation and loneliness, but it also spoke of her loss – the loss of her father, the lack of a significant male presence in her life, and her desire for a love relationship which goes hand-in-hand with her fear of it – and, besides all that, the voice of Captain Oates is marvellous. Full of plummy English public-schoolboyness, it’s a voice I loved reading.

At the book’s conclusion, Captain Oates’ voice is the most real thing about the situation Sym finds herself in. When at her weakest, and near death, Oates is all she has. It’s truly a remarkable thing to read. It made me weep the first time I read this book, and the second, and the third…

I have never read anything quite like ‘The White Darkness.’ Sym’s voice is a strange one for a fourteen-year-old, admittedly: it’s a little too adult, in places, and perhaps a little too knowing. But perhaps that’s to be expected when the character is bookish, shy, socially isolated, lacking in friends, and obsessed with a long-dead man. She’s apart from her peers, and it shows in everything she says and does. I loved her, and I loved the way McCaughrean writes about her, and I loved her version of Oates.

‘The White Darkness’ is an odd and different little book, but it’s one I love. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think of it. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll check it out and let me know whether you liked it.

Happy reading!

Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.  Image: artblart.com

Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates.
Image: artblart.com