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The Explorer's Daughter by Kari Herbert

A magnetic return to the polar people




Too many recent books on polar exploration have been dull, survivalist accounts of how the author "got there" single-handed, at record-breaking speed. All too often they come home with a self-aggrandising tale of their own heroism. Sir Wally Herbert, who can lay claim to being Britain's most eminent living explorer, would describe such journeys as "slam-dunk" affairs, where the value of discovery has been lost in the eagerness to be the fastest to an already-reached goal.

Herbert has said that for anyone to understand either Pole, they need to over-winter there; he lived closely with Inuit hunters for many years, taking his family to Greenland. In 1969, Herbert and his Trans-Arctic Expedition were the first to reach the North Pole on foot, a triumph overshadowed by the Moon landings. It took a scandalous 30 years before his achievement was finally recognised with a knighthood.

Now his daughter has returned to the Arctic Circle for a book that travels far less than its rivals, but delivers considerably more. Rather than set off for the Pole, Kari Herbert spends time with the Inuit community she grew up with as a child. Much has changed, not all for the better. Her father's great friend Avatak has been shot by his wife in a drunken argument: the community have been forced to move from a small island to a less appealing modern township on the mainland; Kari's own sister has died.

Together with Avatak's children, Kari tries to make sense of the events that have hardened like an autumn ice-pack around them, and it is this sense of suffering and loss that gives this book its depth. This is an elegy both for her own childhood and the Arctic, telling of "the depression that always waits for the Eskimo" and of how the world has intruded even in this remote wilderness. A large American airbase nearby has displaced many of the Inuit, and the introduction of alcohol has also taken its toll.

Yet it is also a homecoming, in the best traditions of the northern saga, and a joyous coming to terms with her own calling and that of her father as true Arctic explorers. With the insight of someone who has the land in her blood, Herbert portrays the frozen north in all its strange beauty and devastation: glaciers that calve, copper-coloured lakes and the song of the narwhal.

She knows the Inuit too well to romanticise them: it is not long since Inuit women were expected to pull the sledges if dogs were not available, while the elderly knew their duty in times of hardship was simply to slip off the sledges and die, so as not to consume slender resources.

The Explorer's Daughter is that rare thing - a tale of the Arctic that actually makes the reader want to go there. It is an impressive book, slow-cooked and richly imagined. Rather than attempting to set speed records, perhaps other polar writers should spend more time in the land they are travelling through.

Hugh Thomson's 'Nanda Devi: a Journey to the Last Sanctuary' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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