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Icefields by Thomas Wharton

Icefields (1995)

by Thomas Wharton

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This really is the story of the Arcturus Glacier, one of the glaciers in the Columbia Icefields. The story starts in 1898 when a climbing party from England decides to ascend the glacier. Dr. Edward Byrne slips into a crevasse but is caught part way down. While down in the crevasse waiting for rescue he believes he sees an angel in the ice. This experience haunts him so he continues to return to Jasper to study the glacier. Another person haunted by the glacier is Freya Becker, daughter of a rich man, who travels the world looking for new experiences to write magazine articles about. She also returns year after year and one person who anticipates her arrival is Hal Rawson, a guide at the Hot Springs Chalet. Hal is a poet but he can't write about Freya or the Icefields. The most grounded of the main characters is Elspeth Fletcher, a Scotswoman who also works at the Chalet. She loves Byrne but realizes the glacier is his main passion and she seems content to receive the bit he is able to give her.

Having travelled the Icefields Parkway a number of times I had a constant picture of the landscape in my mind as I read. However, I know that the surroundings must have been considerably different at the time this book takes place. Nevertheless I can see becoming bewitched by the area like Byrne and Freya. Wharton has conveyed the magical impression left by viewing those fields of ice perfectly.

I would recommend this book highly and even if it doesn't win the Canada Reads competition it is a winner in my mind. The great thing about Canada Reads is that it brings to my attention books I might never have heard of otherwise.

I will pass this on to my sister after my book club meeting and then maybe it will be released during the Canada Day release challenge. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 7, 2017 |
In 1898 Dr. Edward Byrne fell into a crevass on a glacier in the Canadian Rockies. As he dangled head down he glimpsed in the blue-green ice what appeared to be a human figure with wings. He is rescued and, haunted by this vision, spends the rest of his life seeking to solve the mystery of what he saw.

This book is beautifully and poetically written, and tells the story of Edward's life and quest in a non-chronological way. A wide array of characters cross paths with Edward in the remote area in which Edward studies the glacier. (The area is based on the Jasper National Park in Alberta). With its location and central event, this could have been treated as an action or true-adventure story. Instead, the author has quietly conveyed one man's search for meaning in his life.

This book won the Commonwealth Best First Novel Prize (Caribbean and Canada Region). ( )
  arubabookwoman | Apr 21, 2017 |
Icefields is a beautiful book—a beautifully written book—a literary expedition into the wondrous and the mysterious: the glassy Arcturus Glacier and the human soul.

The book begins in 1898,. The English medical doctor Edward Byrne, part of an expedition exploring the icefields, falls into a chasm and is pinned upside down. As he edges near unconsciousness he sees something in the blue ice that will forever connect him to this mountain and glacier in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta (near Jasper). Edward is rescued by the other expedition members and is brought to the cabin of the dark-skinned Sara, a “woman with stories,” to recover.

Edward is quiet and thoughtful, a man of science. His medical training provides him with the means to support himself on the frontier, while he pursues his other interests. The story follows Edward’s life while it also paints a rich portrait of the wider landscape: the settlements of the area and the interesting characters who populate it—all of which Edward is a part of.

This is an immensely satisfying story. There is an intense sense of place and Edward is the everyman connecting us to it. There is also something dreamlike, ethereal, or spiritual about it, both in tale and tone. The descriptions of the icefields have a kind of reverence or wonderment in them, and there is a great sense of history, both tangible and intangible, perhaps best expressed in the book’s epigraph: “As if everything in the world is the history of ice.” (Michael Ondaatje in Coming Through the Slaughter) But, I don’t mean to suggest the story floats off the pages, it’s wonderfully balanced, the ethereal tethered to the leathery stories of fur-trading, frontier subsistence, immerging settlements, “iron horses,” and World War I.

Above the dark slope of the valley rose the mountains. Byrne raised a hand to shade his eyes, grown accustomed to the cabin’s cave-like gloom, against their painful brilliance. For a moment he could not believe in these hard, unfathomable masses of rock. They seemed to hang suspended in the sky. A quick, cold breath might shatter them like an illusion of ice crystals and light.

Squinting, he picked out the crevasses and icefalls of Arcturus glacier. From this distance they seemed only delicate, spidery wrinkles in pale blue silk. Above them gleamed the white rim of the névé, where the glacier spilled from a gap between the flanking peaks. A slender curve of burning snow.

I chased down this book after I read Wharton’s The Logograph in 2006. I started it back then but set it aside after a few chapters, perhaps it was not the right book for the moment, or perhaps I was distracted by something else. Icefields is a very different kind of book than The Logogryph, but equally enjoyable. I’m sorry it took so long for me to get back to it. ( )
2 vote avaland | May 6, 2012 |
During a glacial expedition, Dr. Byrne has an accident which lands him upside down in a crevasse, where he thinks he sees something trapped in the ice. Rescued, his life then goes on, yet he obsesses over the image.

Immense pressure, coupled with extreme cold. Combining to produce hitherto unknown effects on matter. Or upon spirit. The possibility of a spiritual entity trapped, frozen, in ice. Enmeshed somehow in physical forces, immobilized, and thus rendered physical and solid itself. … And when it melted out of the ice, would it then just sublimate back into metaphysical space, leaving human time and scientific measurement behind? If I could be there, observe it, at the moment of escape.

Eventually dropping everything else, he becomes a glaciologist, spending summers encamped at the terminus of 'his' glacier. Because, Glaciers are rivers. During his years awaiting the moment of escape, he keeps a journal of his activities around the icefield. The reader learns a great deal about glaciers and some history of Canada. The story contains relationships, anecdotes of remote tourism, and beautifully told descriptions of wild Canada.

I enjoyed the story, the writing, the characters, and especially the setting. (3.8 stars) ( )
  countrylife | Aug 1, 2011 |
After 90 pages, I'm abandoning this book. When I first picked it up, I was looking forward to the descriptions of glaciers and the adventuring/mountaineering in Alberta at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century. And the first part of the book certainly delivered, with a scientific expedition and one Dr. Byrne falling into a crevasse. However, once Byrne had recovered from that and the story moved on to other threads, I lost interest.

It also did not help that the story is told in bite-sized chunks, each chunk encapsulating a single moment or incident. In the beginning this kind of worked, because it felt very immediate, but it also didn't work because it made the whole narrative feel rather choppy. So I think this is more a book that didn't work for me personally. If you like very episodic narratives and have a taste for the mountain wilderness of Alberta, you may like this more than I did.

One thing I did really like about this book was the cover of my edition. Absolutely gorgeous. That's what the extra half-star in my rating is for. ( )
1 vote rabbitprincess | Feb 26, 2011 |
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As if everything in the world is the history of ice.
------Michael Ondaatje (Coming Through Slaughter)
First words
At a quarter past three in the afternoon, on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse.
I'll be a ghost to her. A lesser shade, haunting some room in her memory she hardly ever enters.
Glaciologist. I'd never heard the word before. . . . I thought he was the one man on earth who bothered that much with the, that this science was his alone, that he had invented it. Arcturology. The science of being distant, and receding a little every year.
The terminus of the glacier is an instructive place. Ceaselessly changing, and yet always the same, like the seashore. Ice streams becoming rivers, mountains wearing down into valleys. The transition zone between two worlds.
But ice floats, he thought at the time. Where did it go?
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0671002201, Paperback)

This first novel begins with an imaginative and ingenious premise: a physician trekking across the Arcturus Glacier in the Canadian Rockies in 1898 slips and tumbles into a crevasse, where he beholds a winged human figure. The rest of the book tells of Dr. Edward Byrne's efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery in the ice. Along the way, he encounters a series of eccentrics, each involved in their own quest: the explorer Freya; the industrialist Trask; the poet Hal; and the slightly mad Elspeth, Byrne's lover. Told through scientific notes, journal entries, letters, and dialogue, this historical tale of the incalculable encountered in the mountains marks a promising debut.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:13 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Leaving England for Canada in 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne has no idea that the glacier he has set out to study will come to absorb his every thought. When he arrives in Jasper, he finds himself attracted to then mysterious presence of the big white chunk. His religious appreciation of its movement keeps him in town much longer than anticipated, living out a symbiotic relationship with a block of ice.… (more)

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