January 2006

Kelly Zavala

nonfiction

On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica by Gretchen Legler

Gretchen Legler is a Ph.D. wielding, two-time Pushcart Prize winning, teacher/journalist/author. Already the author of All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook, Legler is often praised for her “beautifully written and eloquent chronicles of outdoor life.” Continuing in this trend is On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

On the Ice strives to explore the glacial deserts and warm hearts of a little known land, Antarctica. Legler is flown in and set down in the bitter cold at bustling McMurdo Station to observe and record information for the National Science Foundation. She immediately sets forth to gather history of the land, of the first brave people who inhabited the unknown continent of ice, and of the scientists who devote their lives to scientific discovery and understanding. While deeply involved in her work, Legler is unexpectedly confronted with romantic feelings for a new friend. She struggles to understand the recent break-up that sent her to the ice, and to find and take courage from the land to enter and explore the waters of this new relationship.

From the very first page, Legler provokes a sense of wonder at the land. The first building she sees when she arrives is a church, which she describes as “something you might expect to see on a hill in rural New Hampshire with cows grazing nearby, but here, instead… it’s unlikely backdrop a barren, sweeping plain of ice and the far-off dark arc of the Transarctic Mountains.” She continues with this wonderful imagery throughout the book. On an expedition one day, she says, “I drove out onto a horizon like I had never seen. The snowy wind moved like a fog over the ground, like a slinky, elegant, snaky thing, throwing off my sense of balance, blurring the edges of my vision.”

Also noteworthy, is Legler’s brevity. The whole book reads like journalism. The scenes are all very beautiful and poignant, like poetry, and yet most of them don’t last more then half a page. The result is a brief, yet engaging, scene or sentence that doesn’t easily escape the mind.

Legler succeeds in weaving together the cold, clinical data necessary for the scientific atmosphere of McMurdo Station and the legend-esque stories and data of previous adventurers and explorers. Added into the mix are the stories of her co-habitants, most of whom fled to Antarctica to escape their off-ice lives. She also works into her narrative braid bits and pieces of her family life, and how in a dream she “went to visit [her] parents and their house was entirely bare, echoing hollowly,” explaining further that her family was never close. Though the slightly dreamy, haunted way she slips in the ghosts of her past does pull at one’s curiosity, her near lack of detail here fails to draw one in completely. Even so, she transitions her passages beautifully. In one sentence she can be talking about how her family life felt frozen. In the next, she is comparing her “frozen family life” to the frozen tundra, and how it is all barren and lonely.

Still, Legler falls short on her earnest attempt to hook the reader. Legler promises stories of love, of revealing the beauty of Antarctica, and of her own personal story and why she fled. Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow through. Except for a brief mention of her barren and lacking family, Legler doesn’t get into her own story until halfway through.

Legler is a tease until then, skirting her own personal story for whole paragraphs of thought-filled self-questioning. These reflective passages are far from convincing. Legler attempts the philosophical, often asking questions like “What will Antarctica teach me?” followed by a quote from Thoreau, or Shelley, or another dead poet or essayist. The story gets lost in the middle of these meanderings, and these portions of the book end up sounding like the beginning of a bad essay. Combine this with an indiscernible plotline and very little story arc, and frustration with the reading comes easy.

When Legler stops trying to impress and just gets to the narrative, the book is more engaging. She succeeds in showing the “achingly beautiful prairie of ice” that is Antarctica, but falls short in presenting a polished piece of work. On the Ice reads like a first draft: fit and interesting, but not necessarily complete.

On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica by Gretchen Legler
Milkweed
ISBN: 157131282X
256 Pages