Last week wasn’t very good for me health-wise. I have systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) and out of the blue I suddenly developed breathing issues, noticed that I had edema in my arms and legs, and struggled with the cold weather more than normal. Seriously, my skin hurt and my fingers kept turning blue!! That’s how I ended up spending most of the week bundled up reading and knitting. (OK, there was a trip to the doctor and a visit to radiology, but who wants to go into that!) Luckily for me my sister and cousin sent me Barnes & Noble gift cards this Christmas, and I had some really good books waiting for me on my Nook. What could have been a sad little week turned into some awesome knitting and an immersive journey to Kentucky and the Arctic through the medium of two fantastic books. Here they are.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
I’m always haunting Goodreads for a good book, and this one came up on my radar a couple of weeks ago. As soon as it was released I bought it for the Nook. What a good decision that was! I began the book Saturday of last week and read steadily over the next couple of days. Wow! What a great story! What the heck was I going to say about this book? I was too stunned to even decide what I thought.
You see, this is a book of layers. It is about so many different things, and yet the threads of the story are so well intertwined you hardly notice it as the many themes and story lines are happening at once. So, in as few sentences as I can, here is what the book is about.
Following the death of his little brother in a horrific accident, 14 year-old Kevin and his mom go to live with his grandfather in the Appalachian coal mining community of Medgar, Kentucky. Kevin bonds with a local boy named Buzzy who is wise in the ways of the woods, and Kevin’s grandfather employs him as an assistant in his large animal vet practice. Just when it seems that the book will be a standard coming-of-age novel other themes emerge in rapid succession. This book is about environmental issues, the relationships between sons and fathers, economic greed, poverty, struggles for power, and the destructive force of homophobia. It is a murder mystery and a heroic wilderness survival story. It is a story about friendship, values, healing, and redemption. I was captured by the story, entranced by the beautiful narrative, and stunned by the turns in the plot. Wow! It was a fantastic read!
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
I was still spinning from the experience of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth when I decided to read a non-fiction book. Once again, I had checked this book out at Goodreads before I bought it, and several of the readers mentioned in their reviews that it was engrossing and read like an adventure novel. Take a chance, I told myself: buy it!
Yep. Another good decision. This book is the story of the voyage of exploration undertaken by the USS Jeanette in 1879. Her mission was to break through the ice belt in the north, reach the open polar waters and finally make it to the North Pole. Yep. In those days it was a commonly held belief that the North Pole was located in a warm open sea filled with teaming life. It was entirely possible, many argued, that there was a lost tribe of humans there. The Arctic was the great unknown, and there was huge public and national interest in the exploration of this region. It was the equivalent of the race to be the first on the moon. The USS Jeanette was the United States’ moonshot, and the cost of the expedition was funded by the most powerful newspaper of the time, the New York Herald.
The book is the story of the people involved in this grand adventure and a factual account of the events before, during, and after the USS Jeanette’s Arctic journey. It is based on many sources including current accounts in the news, personal journals, and the ship’s logs. It is rich, fascinating, and reads like a novel. It is a window into another time, and yet the motivations and emotions of those people echo our own times. It is a love story, an adventure story, a tale of survival in the face of horrific conditions, and even better, it is a story of science. (Hello, old biology teacher here…) The officers and crew of the USS Jeanette went to heroic lengths to collect and preserve maps and data that changed the world’s understanding of the Arctic. After the voyage of the USS Jeanette, it was never again assumed that the North Pole was located in an open sea, and all other efforts to reach it involved trips over sea ice. Just as the trips to the moon changed our view of the Earth, so did the voyage of the USS Jeanette.
A week has gone by since my first sad days of unhappy symptoms, and I am better. (Except my ankle, which has decided to hurt. What’s up with that?!) I dyed some wool, started a new knitting project, and am on the hunt for another book to read. I think it’s time for some science fiction.