If you follow this blog, you know I mostly read fiction. But there is a sub-category of nonfiction that I'm partial to, and that's books about people who go on crazy, insane adventures, things that are dangerous, and live to tell the tale. Talk about living vicariously! I have neither the courage nor, honestly, the desire to risk myself the way a lot of people do. But I sure do love to read about it.
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is a memoir by a woman who developed, at an early age, a fascination with the Arctic and deep winter. As a teenager, she coaxes her parents into sending her to Norway on a student exchange basis. However, that experience did not go so well; the patriarch of the family she was assigned to is clearly (to the reader, if not to the then-teenaged author) a predator who she barely staves off. She learned to speak Norwegian, but was not sorry to leave.
But it didn't dampen her enthusiasm for the Arctic, and after high school, she enrolls in a folk school in far northern Norway, where she goes to learn dogsledding. To say that it was a brutal environment is an understatement, but she loves it. The experience leads her to a small town where she settles in as the surrogate daughter to an aging (but thankfully non-predatory) shopkeeper, who eventually assigns her the task of creating a museum out of an old store.
The stories of life in the small town are interspersed with tales from two summers she spent taking tourists dogsledding on a glacier in Alaska, an adventure that is not nearly as fun as it might sound. The sun glaring down on the glacier caused things like sunburns inside her nose and armpits, from the light reflecting up from the ice. But far worse was the sexism, and ultimately the date rape that she encountered, seemingly still not understanding that she had the right to say no and to have that right respected. As a mother, I wanted to dive into the book, get to the glacier, and seriously harm the man involved, who was a master manipulator.
These horrific experiences obviously had an impact on the author, and she returns to the small town in Norway again and again, struggling to put the sexual abuse aside and just regain her own sense of self-worth and strength by grappling with the extreme environment.
The title is a bit hyperbolic. The "ice cube" in question is the Alaskan glacier, and most of the book doesn't take place there. I've also seen complaints from readers who didn't like the amount of time the author spends detailing her life in the small Norwegian town--they wanted more dogsledding. While I enjoyed the dogsledding parts, the small town sections were hands-down my favorite. She doesn't gloss over some of the less-desirable aspects of life in such a place, whether it's the climate or the sexism or the petty small-town politics. But she still finds value in such a life, and she made me see the value too.
Or maybe it's because winter is my favorite season. I love snow and can cope with the cold. Or, as she puts it regarding the cold:
"The truth was that when it came down to it, the land here seemed kind, and that kindness seemed to be the great secret of the Arctic, at least on the mainland. All its dangers distilled into one crisp feature: cold. And what was cold but a call to the moment? Cold couldn't creep or consume, stalk or drown. It necessitated only insulation. The things that survival demanded--covering our bodies, keeping them separate from other bodies--were things that I already wanted to do. In extreme cold, nobody thought of any body but their own. Nobody would think about mine, wrapped in its layers upon layers. ...
"Of course I was scared. But at least I was scared of the dangers of my own choosing. At least there was joy that came with it."