Thomas Wharton’s CanLit classic ICEFIELDS recently came back to print with a new edition, leading to me discovering it for the first time. It’s quite beautiful, though more a story of a glacier located in Alberta and the park that forms around it than the thin, unrealized plot it presents. Overall, I enjoyed it, but this book is not for everyone.
In the story, the year is 1898, and Dr. Byrne is on an expedition on the Arcturus Glacier in the Canadian Rockies when he slips and falls into a crevasse. Hanging upside down, slowly freezing to death, a stray shaft of sunlight reveals a vision of horrible beauty suspended in the ice. After his rescue, he bounces back and forth between the site and England, spending more and more time alone on the ice, which he studies to determine at what year the thing in the ice will finally be exposed by its primordial flow. Whether it was real or an illusion becomes a lifelong quest and a relationship between a man and an icefield that trumps everything else.
Along the way, we are introduced to other people who live near the glacier: Trask, who after Jasper Park is formed builds a chalet there; Elspeth, who manages the chalet for him; Hal, a shy poet who works as a guide; Sara, a storyteller who nurses Byrne back to health after his fall; and Freya, a free-spirited travel writer and adventuress.
Writing style is always a matter of taste. For me, Wharton’s spare but powerful prose–with its short fragments and jumps in time–worked for me. I quite liked it. Having lived near the Rockies for nearly 20 years, I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but the CanLit style of authors like Wharton and Fred Stenson really taps into the feeling the vastness and wildness of this country can produce. The characters are all compelling and interesting, and I felt invested in Byrne’s exploration of the glacier and his lifelong quest to solve a personal mystery.
Otherwise, there isn’t much a plot, so to enjoy the read, you have to love the people and the fragmentary glimpses into their lives that follow the history of the province of Alberta from the turn of the century past the Great War, with the sprawling glacier brooding through it all. There’s a story about a British explorer told early on that seemingly promises a clue to Byrne about what he saw, but it fizzles out. Similarly, the central conflict and story kind of fizzle out as well with similar disappointment. Which is too bad, because it really could have paid off. Instead, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied and a little frustrated.
Overall, though, I enjoyed ICEFIELDS and recommend it for its interesting scenery, characters, writing, and love of nature, for those readers interested in something literary that’s enjoyable in the moment but doesn’t necessarily go anywhere.