Make no mistake, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube (surely, that’s in the running for Title of the Decade), a memoir chronicling a young woman’s time spent in Norway and Alaska learning to drive sled dog teams and how to survive in inhospitable worlds, is an adventure book. Just not necessarily the sort of adventure you’re expecting when you begin.
Blair Braverman, the book’s author, first traveled to Norway from her Davis, California, hometown at age ten when her family spent a year in Oslo. The cold was thrilling. An impenetrable white space crossed, a young Braverman imagined, by equally impenetrable people, sleek sled dogs, and huge, plodding polar bears. Upon her return to sun-blasted Davis, Braverman devoured books on the Great Frozen North, often reading adventure stories to her father at bedtime, “rather than the other way around,” as she puts it. She was obsessed and plotted a return.
At 16, Braverman joined a host family in Lillehammer, Norway, for a year, the first time she ventured north on her own, to do…what exactly? Prove herself? Steel herself emotionally and physically for future challenges? To learn to be at home in a beautiful but dangerous land of driving snows and crevasses in ice? Probably all of that—Braverman doesn’t seem sure herself. Much of her time that year was spent warding off what reads like borderline physical and mental abuse—or at the very least, mistreatment—from her host father, a man she refers to as only “Far” (“Father” in Norwegian). There’s a heightened element of sexual danger in their relationship, a theme that persists through much of the book. Braverman never seems to know the intentions of the often older men she’s surrounded by in the north. The low-simmering tension she must have carried with her is present in the reader too, as we wonder along with her if at any moment a dark corner might be turned any time she’s by herself with men out on the ice.
And she spends an awful lot of time out on the ice. After her year in Lillehammer ends, Braverman immediately begins plotting a way to go back, to somehow get the year back that she felt was stolen from her by Far. She finds a folk school in far northern Norway at the 69th parallel where she can learn dogsledding. Braverman applies, is accepted, and soon is seated in a food hall with a few dozen other young students, watching the principal speak about community bonding through isolation and cold and tolerance for pain. He is also shirtless with binder clips clamped on his nipples.
“When the principal finished talking, the students cheered. Sven pounded on the table. After a moment, I pounded on the table too, joining the ovation. I was in the Arctic, and in the Arctic things happened for a reason. I felt that nothing could surprise me. The world seemed strange and bright.”
For most of the book, nothing does surprise Braverman. Well, at least, not the Arctic anyway. While on a field trip to the Swedish tundra with her fellow dogsledding students, she and her sledmate lose the rest of the class sledding across a barren snowfield at night. Braverman, clearly unfazed, at times postholes across the snowfield in the darkness, dragging the sled behind her, but this episode is treated with an impressive nonchalance, as the kind of thing that of course happens in the Arctic, and is to be endured, not feared. She once digs a snow cave to sleep in, and, it seems, nearly suffocates. When she is dug out, she emerges none worse for the wear, a lesson learned in proper snow cave maintenance. Perhaps she learned quite a bit from her nipple-clipped principal.
Through the book, Braverman returns to the north again and again, spending months in the small northern town of Mortenhals, working, sort of, at a general store she bought a wool sweater from while a student at the folk school. She cozies into village life as one of the only young women in town, and certainly the only American, forming a close bond with Arild, the avuncular shop owner who offers her a place to stay and something to do. This is a strange, beguiling place, “the Norway of witchcraft, storytelling and incest, not minimalist furniture and the Nobel Peace Prize,” as Braverman notes. She eats whalemeat, shears sheep, and functions as a kind of magnet absorbing the misplaced sexual energy of the town’s aging male population.
Braverman eventually lands a job as a musher on an Alaskan glacier, driving daily helicopter loads of tourists flown in from cruise ships around on dogsleds, proving a “real Alaskan experience.” Though she learns how to operate a sled dog business while there, Braverman also endures her first bad romantic relationship with an older fellow musher, who talks her into physical intimacy, then badmouths her when things go south.
Again, as through most of the book, the adventure in Alaska is often not just of the thrilling moments of dogsleds bounding across landscapes of dramatic icefields, but one of a young woman coming to terms with her own particular journey to adulthood. There are many moments when as grand as the setting is, the frozen north merely recedes into the background. The adventure of a wild and wooly Arctic is there too of course, but it’s a backdrop, though a tantalizing one to be sure. Expect to begin researching dog sled vacations after finishing this book.
Blaverman is a terrific, envy-inducing writer, gifted at describing how a place looks, but also how it feels. “I walked up into the mountains, where I drank from a creek with cupped hands, after first checking there were no sheep upstream. The water was sweet and piercing cold. It made my knuckles ache. It tasted healing, I thought, and then I corrected myself, embarrassed at my own emotion. The water was water. The place was a place. It was no more healing than a kiss to a bruise.”
It’s not quite the adventure story you expect from a woman learning to drive dogs through a frozen tundra, but that makes it all the more surprising and enjoyable. A wintertime must read.
Photo by Christina Bodznick