Christiane Ritter initially refused requests from her husband to join him for a year in the arctic but after being seduced by his descriptions which he sent to her in the form of diaries, she eventually succumbed to his invite and in 1934 joined him to spend a year on the island, Svalbard (Spitsbergen) 400 miles north of Norway.
I selected this tale after finishing Lawrence Millman's Last Places: A Journey in the North, I was not yet satiated and went in search for more about the cold north and came across Millman's blog which listed with his books, Ritter's. Millman was the instigator in getting this book back in print (it had been out of print in English for 60 years, although it has never been out of print in German) and he wrote the introduction in this edition.
I absolutely loved this book and from the first sentence was hooked.
Ritter's story is one of courage, endurance, tenacity and above all spirit, which was born in a10x10 foot hut in the middle of an Arctic wilderness.
The Ritter-hut at Gråhuken (Grey hook)
Ritter wrote without drama or sensation but with a quiet acceptance of the way things are. She recorded her story with gentle observation and poetic insight, eloquently illustrating for the reader the heart of living in the Arctic. She had an appreciation of her surroundings that some male authors/explorers preoccupied in their pursuit of conquests over nature seem to miss. In one passage Ritter describes the misty landscape as "...the dream of a world that is visible before it takes shape as a reality", she encapsulates these scenes as Chinese landscapes, referring to the delicate ink paintings by Chinese monks and asks "Has nobody who has spent the winter here thought them worth mentioning? Have they never moved anyone before? Has it been of no interest that these Chinese pictures come to life on this island of mist, in a thousand variations?"
Everyone in our group seemed to enjoy the book, one member said it was not the style of novel that she would ever have chosen for herself and was pleasantly surprised at how much she did like it. Ritter's description of the light..one example..."the world is in deep twilight, a perpetual twilight from which it can no longer emerge" seemed to hit a chord with all the girls in the bookclub as we experience something very similar here. Some of the girls did want to read more about her relationship and personal life as there are only hints of this in the book but I felt it not at all necessary as the main character of the book is the Arctic and the transformation that it generated in Ritter.
I limited the speed in which I read this book, I could have finished it in one sitting, instead I decided to stingily dole it out to myself in small measures, so I could savour and relish each page of Ritter's beautiful rendition of her year in the Arctic. This novel is now on my list of life time favourites, overall our club gave it 4 out 5 stars but I give it the full 5 as her style of writing really resonated with me, I highly recommend it.
A tip that was given to Ritter on her journey to Grey Hook by an elderly gentleman, which I identify with in my own life is no matter what "you must take a walk everyday even in the winter night and storms". Ritter did this religiously even during blizzards, crawling on all fours circling the outside of the cabin, I however do draw the line at blizzards, even the dog will not go out then.
I leave you now with another life tip from Christiane Ritter.
"A year in the Arctic should be compulsory to everyone...then you will come to realise what is important in this life and what isn't".