“The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska… Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky…Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Artic Coastal Plain…The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk…
As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece…It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule” (19).
These paragraphs begin Shannon Huffman Polson’s memoir North of Hope. It’s a paragraph full of information and questions. Polson is in an airplane battered by its circumstances—the windows are difficult to see through and the stairs are of questionable stability. She’s in a small Native village “at the end of the world.” The airstrip is dirt and the cold knifes through her clothing. Boundaries blur. Its obvious Polson has traveled to a place far off the usual Alaskan tourist path; this is not a place for the casual visitor. It’s a hard land; a desolate one. All of these details lead the reader to a question: why is she here?
Polson answers that question throughout the rest of her book. She is here to repeat the last journey her father and stepmother started a year ago, but never finished; they were mauled to death by a rouge grizzly bear. Her memoir is also a story of her journey through grief; a journey she started by singing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony “every Monday…after Dad and Kathy’s funeral” (43).
Polson’s writing brings the reader alongside as she undertakes her parents’ last journey through a harsh, fragile, and beautiful land; a place most people will never experience. Her memoir is about loss, the difficulty of grieving as she chooses to embrace the pain, and hope as she finishes the journey—both down the river and through her grief.
I took this book on vacation with the intention of reading it, but then my husband, who is not a reader, picked up North of Hope, and I didn’t see it again until he was done. It’s a book that has stayed with both of us.
Read the first two chapters here.
Polson, Shannon Huffman. North of Hope. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2013. Print.