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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North
By Peter Freuchen. Introduction by Gretel Ehrlich. Echo Point Books and Media. 400 pp.

Arctic Adventure isn’t strictly a travel book. But then travel itself isn’t a strictly defined category—it so often bleeds into memoir, autobiography, history. Freuchen’s book is all of these and ethnography as well. In 1910 he left his native Denmark to set up a trading post in north Greenland with the explorer Knud Rasmussen, and over the next 14 years he settled among the Inuit, married an Inuit woman, Navarana, and started a family. Arctic Adventure draws a vibrant portrait of the Inuit, whose fascinating culture is so different from ours in the West.

Of course, as its title suggests, the book recounts adventures as well. Inevitably, it is filled with hair-raising tales of survival—this is the Arctic, after all, and Freuchen is an explorer. “Traveling along an unknown coast,” he writes, “not knowing what or whom to expect next, is the most exciting experience in the world.” He and Rasmussen cross the Greenland ice cap by dog sledge, a feat that had not been accomplished on such a difficult route before. On one journey, he and his companions are caught by the ice breaking up all around them, and toward the end of his stay he—with a badly injured leg—and a young man just manage to make it on a trek through heavy clay. Exhaustion and near-starvation on these journeys are the norm.

Nevertheless, Freuchen says, to him, the “contacts with the natives and with the white men who had lived for many years among them, are much more interesting to recall than my hand-to-hand combats with wilderness, inclement weather and wild beasts.” And as he moves through the years in Greenland, these portraits form the heart of the book. Creating dramatic scenes, skillfully recreating the speech patterns of the Inuit, he takes us directly into the lives of these people: their beliefs, their moral codes, their diet and hunting techniques, their resilience, humor, and great enjoyment of life.

His depiction of Navarana, whom he shrewdly introduces before we know who she will become, is sensitive and charming, and their relationship opens our eyes to Inuit customs. When he and his companions return from their long trip across the ice cap, for example, their wives are not present to meet them. When, in his house, he calls up to Navarana that he is home, she replies: "What of it?...Somebody is cleaning a few skins!" Of course, she is as happy to see him as he is to see her, but to express it would be an embarrassment: showing such emotion is not the Inuit way.

The strength of any travel book comes down to the traveler, and Freuchen is among the best: self-deprecating despite his obvious accomplishments, generous to others, and passionate about his story. It is especially wonderful to encounter such appreciation of and respect for another culture, rare in his own day and not common enough today.

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