Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin, Riverrun, 475 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1780871721
In the winter of 1932, a fur trapper known as Albert Johnson was killed in a shoot-out with Mounted Police in the Canadian Arctic. He had been on the run for almost two months, since New Year’s Eve the previous year, when he shot a member of a four-man patrol sent to instruct him to stop interfering with the traps of local Indians, and to obtain a trapper’s licence of his own. Johnson’s first police victim survived, but the second, thirty-one-year-old Edgar Millen, who was born in Belfast, was not so lucky. On January 30th, 1932, as another four-man patrol closed in on a camp the trapper had constructed near a river, Millen, the leader of the group, was shot dead as he charged Johnson’s position.
By the time the Mounties finally ensnared Johnson in the middle of February 1932, news of his escapades – during the chase he apparently climbed a seven-thousand-foot peak in a blizzard, without specialist gear; travelled over ninety miles on foot over three days, and spent a night without heat or shelter, when temperatures during the day were minus 45 degrees centigrade – had spread internationally, and there was widespread sympathy for this loner at large. The interest continues to this day: in Ed O’Loughlin’s essay, Howling Huskies, Dangerous Trails, published in the Dublin Review in 2012, he writes that Johnson’s story has been the basis for eight works of popular non-fiction, two feature films and a Discovery Channel documentary. It is also part of the inspiration for O’Loughlin’s latest novel, a frozen adventure story set in Inuvik, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, which traces the lure of this icy landmass of absence for people like Johnson, enigmatic, strange, drifters who wish to wander alone, explore new territories or disappear altogether.
In his essay, O’Loughlin explains that Johnson’s true identity has never been resolved. After his death, authorities sent photographs and fingerprints to law-enforcement agencies across Canada and the USA, but no match was found. Later research connected Johnson to a man named Arthur Nelson, a prospector, trapper and also a loner, but the identification has never been definitive enough for the mystery to diminish, and that mystery is at the heart of O’Loughlin’s ambitious new work. Although the novel – or at least the novel’s framing device – is set in the present day, the writer chooses to name his central character Nelson, whose real name may or may not be Arthur Nilsson and who may or may not have a missing brother named Albert. Along the way, Nelson meets Fay, an English woman whose bank cancels her credit cards because it believes she is dead.
Riddles, confusion and the solace of isolation in a white landscape pervade this piece of fiction. O’Loughlin himself suggests this thesis at the beginning of his Dublin Review essay: “A true mystery story, the kind that makes the hairs rise on your neck, should leave you none the wiser, or even less wise than before,” he writes. I was definitely none the wiser by the time I had finished this book: I’m not sure I could tell you what happened to Nelson, or who he was, or if indeed he had a brother at all. I don’t really know if Fay was alive or dead. I’m not really sure I care. This is some of the difficulty of creating characters, within the prism of fiction, which are all blurred outlines and little of concrete substance: we get some insights into Fay’s relationship with her now dead mother, for whom she appeared to have cared over a long period, and we understand that Nelson has become estranged from a woman and that woman’s child, whom he appeared to have loved as his own.
These are reasons for both of these characters to end up where they are, why they are, but they are not enough to fully invest in them as a reader. The mystery of Albert Johnson may abide precisely because he remains a blank slate to audiences, all these years later, but we ask different things of fiction from those we ask of real life. O’Loughlin’s first narrator, the world-weary Owen, in his debut novel Not Untrue and Not Unkind, has enough of a voice to carry us with him to the end of the book; Fay and Nelson, however, are as soft and slippery as the snow upon which they travel. But then, what does this matter? After all, a deep investment in his principal narrators does not seem to be O’Loughlin’s intent here: to retain the mystery, he wishes to keep us at a distance and in keeping us at a distance he takes a risk, one that is bold and commendable, although I’m not sure it is one that fully pays off.
In a Q and A included at the back of O’Loughlin’s second book, the 2011 war farce Toploader, the writer suggests that he is ready to move away from stories of international conflicts and the reporters who cover them. His first book, which was longlisted for the Booker prize, was informed by his own experiences as a foreign correspondent in Africa, while Toploader is set in an Embargoed Zone that closely resembles the Gaza Strip – the writer was for a time Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne. He has transposed us in this new work to the cold and the obscure, away from the heat and the rain of his earlier locations, but there remain echoes of his previous interests: love, adventure, escape and exhaustion in big open spaces – Toploader being an exception in that last respect, set as it is in a tight, confined location. Nelson, for example, is in many ways reminiscent of the journalist Owen: a man beaten down by life, to whom things now happen, even though by the time Owen tells us his story, he happens to be rooted in place, whereas Nelson drifts inescapably. In Not Untrue and Not Unkind, Owen had a nemesis, the American journalist Nathan Fine, a go-getting, prize-seeking, dynamic character who makes decisions and takes actions, which lead ultimately to his downfall. Nelson, on the other hand, is contrasted with a host of other forceful, charismatic men. In his fascination with the Arctic landscape, O’Loughlin is also intrigued by those who set out to conquer it, to rein it in, and the book moves back and forth in time between some of the earliest polar expeditions, and the characters that took part in them. We meet real people such as the British naval officer Sir John Franklin, who was lost along with the ships Terror and Erebus and their crews during an attempt to map the Northwest Passage in 1845; to the French officer Lieutenant René Bellot, who went in search of Franklin six years later, became famous for discovering the Bellot Strait, and later disappeared in the ice; to Cecil Meares, the explorer Scott’s chief dog handler and a First World War pilot; to the famous Norwegian Roald Amundsen, winner of the race to the South Pole, who himself disappeared in 1928 while flying on a rescue mission in the Arctic. At times, the writer places these true-life characters alongside fictitious side-kicks; at others, he has them narrate their own stories, offering us a sense of their interior lives. He takes plenty of liberties, and admits as much in the acknowledgments to the book: the chapter on Bellot, for example, sees the young man tortured by the certainty that the strait named in his honour was a figment of his captain’s imagination, while Amundsen nearly kills himself during a hallucinatory episode in Siberia in 1919. The wealth of research, detailed and layered, which O’Loughlin brings to the text is an interesting as any story of the Norwegian explorer trying to shoot himself in the snow. Fascinating in particular is his account of the Distant Early Warning Line, a system of radar stations in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska set up to detect Soviet bombers during the Cold War, which has now been deactivated and is in the process of being dismantled. The dense, precise, factual information that underpins the fiction, along with the maps that depict the various Arctic missions detailed in the book, is among the most rewarding aspects of this work.
O’Loughlin has long been fascinated by the polar regions: he was born in Toronto but raised in Ireland and in his essay he tells us that his childhood was charged with an enchantment for the Arctic and Antarctic, for “Greenland sharks and Captain Oates and ice-bound rocks and frozen forests”. “Near the poles the maps did funny things,” he writes, “projected lines into the void, hinted at eternity.” It is an atmospheric concept and this atmosphere – of the unknown, the unclear, the mysterious – pervades the work, making it hard to catch hold of any of the characters, although people such as Meares and Amundsen are enigmatic enough to hold your attention even when they are not fully drawn, in a way that Fay and Nelson are not. But a sense of atmosphere, of a place where “a haze spread across the sky from south to north until the stars were hidden and the evening turned grey” is often also enough to draw a reader in, even when the myriad of characters crammed into the work gets confusing: who is talking to whom, and what are they meant to be doing? A reviewer once described O’Loughlin as a graceful writer, and I thought of this phrase many times during the reading of this book, lingering as I did over such sentences as “the sky was a sad shade of silver, turning pink in the south where the sun had tried and failed to clear the horizon. To the north, the stars held firm against the civil twilight”, or over the final paragraph in the book’s last chapter, before its epilogue, as Fay and Nelson prepare to leave the Arctic space to which they have all but succumbed.
Out here, beyond the edge of the town, there was no artificial light apart from their low-beams and the glow of the dashboard. The Northern Lights played their ageless games in the sky, indifferent to anyone who watched them … The engines roared, yellow-tipped propellors became yellow-edged discs, the art pushed away from the undercarriage. There was the highway, there the white slash of the river’s east channel, glowing in the starlight. The forest became a dark stain on the snow. They were flying due north ahead of the sunrise. The town briefly appeared like a childhood beneath them, all red, green and yellow and Christmas trees and snow. Then it was gone and they were drifting with the stars, those flitting points of light, holding hands in the warm darkened cabin, already falling asleep.
John McGahern believed that a writer’s primary duty was to write well, and when O’Loughlin cleaves to that imperative, as he often does throughout this lengthy work, I was happy to go with him, enjoying his words and constructions in an almost separate fashion to his narrative, overly poetic though he may sometimes end up becoming.
Interestingly, O’Loughlin in this novel appears far more in thrall to his characters and their escapades than he ever did in his first two works. There is none of the scathing and recognisable fury of those books, which ‑ delicately in Not Untrue and Not Unkind, and perhaps less so in Toploader ‑ skewered those involved in futile, endless wars as well as the news outlets that cover them, and I wondered whether the issue of climate change, and the degradation that the “white man” has brought to these winter landscapes so beloved of the author, could not have found its way more thoroughly into this book. The writer includes a chapter narrated by an Inuit hunter who takes up with the American late 19th century explorer Captain Charles Francis Hall, and there is some sense in the descriptions O’Loughlin has here of the actions of English whalers at the turn of the century, or in the hunter’s – whose English name is Joe – own bludgeoning to death of bearded seals, for “the pleasure of killing”, of the wilful domination the Arctic and other places have suffered since Western explorers and hunters came their way. Joe, becoming educated in the ways of the English, kills the seals after he finds that he “could no longer be happy just to travel to hunt, and to hunt only to eat, and to seat so I could rest”, but after he kills so many seal cows and pups that the “sea turned red” he finally takes account of what he has done. “I saw the great slaughter that we had committed on the beach and an emptiness came into me and then a great fear. The seals looked like dead people – women and children washed up on the sand.” O’Loughlin’s account also of the destruction caused by the Distant Early Warning radar sites, which are full of “PCBs and asbestos and diesel oil and all sorts of crud”, is another reminder of the environmental wreckage thoughtlessly imposed on this particular landscape. There is, of course, nothing worse than a “worthy” piece of art, which is not what I am urging; I simply missed the tone of disgust that exuded, from his first book particularly, as for example in this exchange between Owen and another lowly news stringer collapsing under the intense pressure to feed the news beast by giving non-stop phone interviews to his office in London:
“Just agree with whatever they ask you, then throw in something extra from the wires,” I said hopefully.
“I haven’t read the wires since yesterday. Polly didn’t bring them today.”
Of course she hadn’t. I closed my eyes and tried to think.
“Tell them the rebels are advancing rapidly towards Kinshasa,” I said finally. “Tell them they are deep in the jungle, and nobody knows quite where. Tell them Catholic missionary radio is accusing the rebels of massacres. It’s always saying that.”
“What about Mobutu?”
“Mobutu says he won’t negotiate. Neither will the rebels. The French are demanding a ceasefire. Well, they were the last time I heard, which was a couple of days ago now. I doubt if they’ve changed their minds in the meantime.”
“And what about the humanitarian situation?”
“Listen: fuck the humanitarian situation.”
“No, seriously. They always ask about that.”
I closed my eyes again. “The humanitarian situation is very grave…Food is short in the markets…If clean water runs out there’s a major risk of cholera, I suppose.
“That sound pretty bad.”
“There’s always cholera and stuff when people drink shitty water.”
“Doesn’t matter. This is good stuff … Is there anything I should say about children?”
“The UN says that children remain most at risk.”
“All of the above, plus child abuse, I suppose. A lot of women will have been raped too, but don’t say anything about that unless you’re asked first.”
“Why not?” He had stopped writing.
“It might sound too eager. If they want rape, they’ll ask for it.”
Somehow, the mysteries created in Minds of Winter don’t quite have the same resonance for me as a conversation such as this, which offers so sharp and pointed a counterpoint to the hero tales of war reporters sometimes depicted in film, sometimes offered up by these reporters themselves.
The only food the Mounties who killed Albert Johnson found on him was a frozen squirrel and a jay. For weeks, the trapper had been unable to shoot game because he needed to keep silent lest his hunters discover his presence. He was skeletally thin, and his face and other body parts were black with frostbite. Yet, according to O’Loughlin’s Dublin Review essay, Johnson could have slipped his Mountie pursuers and headed for Alaska, but instead appeared to have chosen to stay in the region and either survive or fight to the death. Over the years, his legend grew and he became a figure of fear, a spirit that many believe still haunts the forests and mountains of his final days. It’s a haunted feeling O’Loughlin seeks to evoke throughout this work. At one stage, Fay and Nelson go out to find the grave of Albert Johnson. They discover a plain wooden cross in a small cemetery, with the words “Albert Johnson?” written on it. Just before they reach the cross, they read a sign. “Albert Johnson arrived in Ross River August 21, 1927. Complaints of local trapper brought the RCMP on him. He shot two officers and became a fugitive of the law with howling huskies, dangerous trails, frozen nights. The posse finally caught up with him. He was killed up the Eagle River, Feb 17, 1932.” In the book, Nelson realises that authorities now believe Johnson and the trapper Arthur Nelson to be one and the same. As he ponders this suggestion, Nelson accidentally steps off the street into thigh-deep powdered snow. “Floundering among the crosses, he called back over his shoulder. ‘Imagine wading thirty miles a day in this. I guess this is what it was like to be Arthur Nelson.’” “You are an Arthur Nelson,” thinks Fay to herself. Is he? The mystery only deepens. We will never know.
Rachel Andrews is a writer and journalist based in Cork city.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Rachel Andrew’s essay from 2010 on John McGahern, “Minding the Language”. Here is an extract:
Gustave Flaubert once wrote that to write well is everything. John McGahern quotes this sentence, and many others, from Flaubert – one of his writerly heroes – in the course of an essay on Dubliners published in this collection of his non-fiction work which, appearing three years after his death, provides a new aspect to a voice familiar until now through fiction and autobiography.
In the essay, McGahern’s chief concern is to consider the quality of Joyce’s prose, which the author himself described as being “a style of scrupulous meanness” and to which McGahern ascribes an “authority and plain sense” that clearly reflects how he believes fiction – indeed all writing – should be approached. For McGahern, Flaubert’s dictum is an imperative: that is why he quotes him so liberally throughout. In order to be able to write well, he believes, one needs to find “a unique expression, endlessly reworked and enriched, until it is pared down to an individual style, to the point where the man behind the work is his work and eventually becomes one with it”. Dubliners is a great work of art, he concludes, because, in the book “the method is that people, events, and places invariably find their true expression … Everything is important in Dubliners because it is there and everything there is held in equal importance.”
There is serious attention paid to the art and craft of writing in Love of the World, reflecting McGahern’s priorities as a writer. He did not write quickly – taking twelve years between his greatest literary success, Amongst Women (1990), and his next publication, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) – and he constantly rewrote his work, even after it had been published: he regularly reworked his short stories and revised The Leavetaking (1974) ten years after its first appearance. He was also a ruthless editor, paring Amongst Women down to two hundred pages from its original twelve hundred, in the process creating spare, exact prose in which no word or phrase is redundant.
The workings of his craft are evidenced in “Five Drafts”, the first piece in the collection, in which he writes and rewrites a paragraph on sexuality, love and the church, but his thoughts on that which is inherently important within good prose reappear time and again throughout the collection. In “The Solitary Reader”, he recalls his early writing years: “Words had been a physical presence for me for a long time before, each word with its own weight, colour, shape, relationship, extending out into a world without end. Change any word in a single sentence and immediately all the other words demand to be rearranged. By writing and rewriting sentences, by moving their words endlessly around, I found that scenes or pictures and echoes and shapes began to emerge that reflected obscurely a world that had found its first expression and recognition through reading.” The short stories of the Canadian Alistair MacLeod he finds to be written in a “language of precision and deep eloquence”; referring to the concluding story in one of MacLeod’s collections, he writes that “everything is right and sure-footed as the story reaches its delicate and inevitable ending”. In his discussion of Dubliners, he criticises George Moore as a writer of “self-expression: he constantly substitutes candour for truth”. Dubliners, on the other hand, has no self-expression: “its truth is in every phrase”.