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“You will be locked up in an icy prison, unable to get out.”

By Elinore Standard

For years, my husband had a pile of books next to his bed, waiting, he said, for when he got sick. Although he was sometimes down for a day or two, Michael was never out long enough to make a dent in the pile.

The books that stayed longest on the table were eight volumes from the American Trail series, put out in the 1960s by McGraw-Hill. Each volume deals with an American thoroughfare—the Natchez Trace, the Boston Post Road, the Erie Canal, the Santa Fe Trail, and so on.

In addition to these, there was Hakluyt’s Voyages, a 1965 anthology of maps and papers collected during the 1500s by Richard Hakluyt, an Oxford don who documented the birth of the English empire. In most instances, the authors of the various documents were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded: battles, explorations, and journeys by people of action, men such as Raleigh and Drake, Hawkins and Cavendish. 

There was modern history on the table, and plenty of biography, the anchors of the pile. His everyday reading might include a novel here and there, and the occasional thriller and mystery to lighten the going, but the principal books were non-fiction. 

When we moved house, the library got shuffled. The table beside the bed became a hallway fixture with a new marble top to hide the scratches. A different bedside situation was required and so a large chest replaced the table. Now there was more stacking space. Hakluyt and Trails got moved into the library and a pile of contemporary non-fiction took their place.

Then, without warning, Michael got sick. He got the kind of sick he never bargained for. He got probed. He got scanned. He began chemotherapy at the local hospital here in Burlington, Vermont. No going to New York or Boston; he wanted to stay near home, in the hands of doctors and staff he had come to rely upon and respect.

The dire prognosis did not stand in the way of good, solid, dependable reading. I see he has finished The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer, The Forever Warby Dexter Filkins, The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, and Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder. He owns all these books and he remembers most of what he reads. 

I dragged a lot of Michael’s heavy stuff into the chemo salon, where it kept him company during the long infusion process. When the poison put him in bed, he’d fall asleep with one of these tomes balanced on his chest. On he went, reading his way to a place in his head where the awfulness of what he was going through could not penetrate. Meanwhile I kept visiting the public library, where I am comfortable checking out junk. Sometimes I would describe a character to Michael, as a kind of story to relate. But often, I noticed, he seemed to be tuning out on these ramblings. How do we ever know what somebody else is really thinking?

Then, one day, a suspicious-looking, plain-brown-wrapper package arrived in the mail. The return address was somewhere in Wisconsin from a sender unknown to either of us. 

“It looks like a bomb,” my husband said. “You open it.” 

So I took a big breath and slit the package, turning my head away: save the eyes, to hell with the hands.  Inside was a thick old book, dust jacket faded and frayed. Kabloona: A White Man Alone in the Arctic Among the Eskimos, ordered through a used-book dealer by a friend in Texas.

Our friend is an exquisite reader but we wondered what she could possibly be thinking. “Read it,” she said, “and talk to me about it when you’re done.” So Michael took this thick 1941 book by Gontran de Poncins and started to read. It was slow going at first but it went with him, in and out of the doctors’ offices and the chemo sessions and back into his book-filled lair at home. He was seldom without Kabloona and it got to be a kind of a joke.

But the book itself was no joke, he explained. It is the account by Poncins of time spent in 1938 among the Eskimos of King William Land, near the North Pole. Poncins was more than a mere traveler, although he had traveled a lot. He was searching for “men who did not hate one another, for men who did not grab from one another, but shared what they had among all of their kind.” They were the Netsilik Inuit, who hunted and fished and lived in igloos. As Poncins neared his destination at the end of August, having got there in stages, he was told, “Your lungs will freeze. You will be locked up in an icy prison, unable to get out.” Amundsen had been there in 1905 and his passage was marked by rock cairns and two beams nailed together in the shape of a cross.

Poncins says he had to get on with the Eskimos if he was going to live with them, and “a good part of this book, therefore, is the story of the encounter of two mentalities, and of the gradual substitution of the Eskimo mentality for the European mentality within myself.” 

Although Kabloona is not the kind of book you can read straight through, Michael seemed drawn into that frozen landscape and remained enthralled by the descriptions and the characters. Kabloona (which means “white man”) saw him through his own passage deep into the arctic world of cancer. 

You might say this is escape reading, but we’re all for that. I read memoirs to compare the course of my own life with that of others. I read to check how I’m doing. Michael, who now has so little control over the effects of various so-called “treatments,” seems to be doing something else. He plowed ahead when he was almost too sick to hold up the large volumes he seems to prefer. He gradually emerged from chemo (and from Kabloona), and now carries James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era to his daily radiation therapy, in a book bag slung across his walker.

You might say he is reading to save his life.

Elinore Standard CW’55 is the co-editor with Laura Furman of Bookworms: Great Writers and Readers Celebrate Reading.

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