Assistant Professor, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
Affiliation with UVic English: Alumni; B.A. 1998, M.A. 2002
Special Book: Icefields, Thomas Wharton
When did you first read this book: When I was an undergrad in one of Smaro Kamboureli’s Canadian fiction courses (1996 or 1997?).
Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?
“At a quarter past three in the afternoon, on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of the Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse.”
What does the sentence mean to you?
The novel’s matter-of-fact opening sentence, which one could picture in the expedition guide’s logbook or a coroner’s report, sets a tone of scientific description and confidence that’s quickly unsettled by the rest of the story. (While dangling in the crevasse, Byrne sees what appears to be a frozen angel.) That tension between the describable and the indescribable also shows up in the quasi-scientific definitions of different glacier-related terms (“terminus,” “moraine,” etc.) that serve as epigraphs to the chapters — a surplus of imaginative language keeps seeping out of them. I enjoyed these tensions in the novel because they reminded me of the contradictions involved in hiking, which I did a lot of in BC but miss now that I live in Toronto. You pack your gear, plan out your food, measure your fuel, estimate your times and distances, and then surrender yourself to the interventions of chance, weather, injury, and critters. Some things you can plan for, some things you can’t; some things can be photographed or described when you get back, some things can’t. And some things just can’t be mapped. Thomas Wharton’s first novel captures all this beautifully.
(A Canadian novel confirms a Canadian reader’s experience of Canadian landscape?! Unheard of… 😉
Years later I’ve come to appreciate this novel for another reason: its design as a book. Now that I teach book history at U of T, and take my own students on field trips to local presses like Coach House Books, I’ve been learning what a great tradition of book design we have in Canada. I believe the first NeWest edition of Icefields won a design award or two when it first appeared; it certainly deserves one. Some of Wharton’s subsequent novels deal with printing and bookmaking in really imaginative ways, and I hope to teach them to my own students one of these days. (Thanks, Smaro!)