Bold combo of mem­oir, trav­el­ogue

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - LIFE -

ON his mother’s side, Bri­tish Columbia poet and pro­fes­sor Jay Ruzesky is a cousin, twicer­e­moved, of Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Roald Amund­sen.

Ruzesky’s com­pelling new mem­oir, In Antarc­tica, tells the story of his trip to the Antarc­tic a cen­tury af­ter his an­ces­tor be­came the first per­son to set foot on the South Pole.

Ruzesky, who now teaches in Dun­can, spent his child­hood dream­ing of the po­lar ex­pe­di­tions. But his adult life had been con­sumed by writ­ing three col­lec­tions of po­etry and a novel, teach­ing and hav­ing a fam­ily.

As the 2011 an­niver­sary of Amund­sen’s achieve­ment ap­proached, Ruzesky tried to rec­on­cile him­self to not fol­low­ing in his an­ces­tor’s foot­steps.

He failed. In­stead, Ruzesky found him­self on­line, book­ing a berth on a ship that would take him from Patag­o­nia to the Antarc­tic.

What’s more, he con­vinced his brother Scott to come along, even if his sib­ling’s first ques­tion was, “Which one of us is Amund­sen?”

Ruzesky knew he was in­cur­ring tens of thou­sands of dollars of debt but thought there might be a book in his trip across the ice. (Which, in case you’re won­der­ing, makes per­fect eco­nomic sense to a poet.)

Struc­turally, In Antarc­tica par­al­lels Ruzesky’s 2011 trip with episodes from Amund­sen’s 1911 voy­age on the Fram and his ear­lier ex­pe­di­tion to the Antarc­tic on the Bel­gica in 1887. His ti­tle is ob­vi­ously an homage to the late Bruce Chatwin’s clas­sic 1977 travel mem­oir, In Patag­o­nia.

The sec­tions from Ruzesky’s point of view meld travel writ­ing with mem­oir, which ef­fec­tively sets the stage for the writer’s month-long voy­age.

For in­stance, though Ruzesky has called B.C. home for 20 years, he spent his child­hood in the cold-weather climes of Win­nipeg, Thun­der Bay, Saska­toon and Calgary.

One story that would be fa­mil­iar to any­one who grew up on the Prairies de­tails how the en­trance col­lapsed to the quinzee he and his school­mates had built in their school play­ground in Thun­der Bay.

This is mean­ing­ful, given that Amund­sen’s crew spent more than a year in a large hut con­nected to a se­ries of snow caves on the Ross Ice Shelf be­fore mak­ing their at­tempt on the pole.

Also in­ter­est­ing is Ruzesky’s anec­dote of a failed dog-sledg­ing les­son in White­horse in 2002. Know­ing that Amund­sen’s suc­cess in reach­ing the South Pole was largely at­trib­uted to his use of dogs in­stead of ponies, like his English ri­val Robert Fal­con Scott, su­per­charges this story.

Ruzesky also in­cludes med­i­ta­tions on ex­plo­ration and car­tog­ra­phy and pro­vides con­text for Amund­sen’s jour­ney by pro­vid­ing thumb­nail sketches of other voy­ages to both the North and South poles.

The other half of In Antarc­tica is in Amund­sen’s voice, an in­cred­i­bly de­tailed ac­count that Ruzesky some­how cob­bled to­gether from the ex­plorer’s jour­nals and pho­to­graphs.

More im­por­tantly, th­ese sec­tions are very finely writ­ten. Ruzesky il­lu­mi­nates Amund­sen’s dreamy child­hood and his pos­si­ble mo­tives for de­vot­ing his life to ex­plo­ration in­stead of medicine, as his mother would have pre­ferred.

Ruzesky’s de­scrip­tion of Ad­mund­sen’s af­fair with the mar­ried Si­grid Cast­berg that pre­ceded the 1911 voy­age, how­ever, read like the best his­tor­i­cal fic­tion.

All of which is to say that In Antarc­tica is a bold and sat­is­fy­ing com­pos­ite of creative non-fic­tion, mem­oir and travel writ­ing.


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