A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter
Translated by Jane Degras
Reviewed by REBECCA HENDERSON
University of Alaska Press, 2010
Men of adventure may claim the Arctic’s greatest exploits, but the soft, bold voice of feminine strength in the far north belongs to Christiane Ritter. A Woman in the Polar Night, Ritter’s story of her year above Norway on the island of Spitsbergen, has enjoyed lasting popularity among European readers and has not been out of print in the original German since first published in 1938. The recent English reissue, however, is the first printing of this translation since 1954, making the book once again accessible to English language readers. In this memoir, Ritter voyages from 1930s Europe to a remote corner of land marked by ice and snow, dark and light. But her writing is more than a description of her travels, sights, and experiences; it carries the reader on a journey of awakening in the heart of an artistic and courageous woman.
At the request of her hunter-trapper husband, Ritter leaves her home in Austria to join him for a year of what she hopes will be quiet and rest. Instead of lazing her days away in blissful solitude, however, Ritter finds herself hard at work. Her book speaks without melodrama of the difficulties she faces in travel by boat and by foot, of the great effort required to accomplish daily tasks, of the never-ending preoccupation with finding food. Over the course of a year without the normal rhythms of day and night, time itself is turned on its head as days are measured not by sunrises and sunsets but, first, by how long it has been since the inhabitants of their tiny hut have seen a sky dark enough for stars and, later, as they are in the midst of weeks on end of polar night, how long since they’ve eaten vegetables or meat.
The true depth of Ritter’s writing is her insight of her own transformation over the course of a year in the Arctic with its contrasting stretches of darkness and sunlight. In the midst of her first blizzard, alone while her husband has trekked with his partner to set traps, she notes with pleasure her internal victory in the face of adversity: “For the first time in my life I experience the joy of struggling with something stronger than myself.” Never mind that the external battle—fought with a shovel, to keep their hut from being completely buried in snow—is one that she ultimately loses. For Ritter the true gain is in her understanding: “Why have I been so shaken by the peacefulness of nature? Because it was preceded by the titanic storm? Do we really need the force of contrast to live intensively? It must be that. For a gentle song would not shake us if we had never heard a loud one.”
One can’t help but wonder how Ritter might have told her story to the world differently if she were to embark on her year in the Arctic today. Rather than allowing herself to experience the fullness of solitude at the ends of the earth, might she have taken advantage of satellite technology to send out daily tweets or updates to her blog? Or would she have taken along a camera crew to film her “isolation” for a reality TV show?
Ritter would have scoffed at such ideas. The true benefit of her year in the Arctic comes from the loneliness, the simplicity, the detachment from civilization and all of the possessions and connections she left behind in Europe. She grows from puzzling over her husband’s sentimentality at lighting a lamp for the first time after months of constant sunlight, to understanding the treasure of such a simple moment when the normal patterns of life have slowed down from their busy blur and come into sharper focus. After she has spent weeks in what she calls “unending darkness,” she comes to a place of sadness for those “who live under the sun”: “With bent heads they are running round in circles, the circles of their anxieties and troubles. Only a few of them see the glory of the sun.” Ritter’s words challenge the reader to ask what other glories, though common to every place and every day, are being overlooked in indifference.
REBECCA HENDERSON is a writer who recently moved from Texas to Washington via China.