When given the opportunity to read North of Hope, my interest was piqued because I do enjoy memoirs and though the subject seemed tragic, the setting of the Pacific Northwest (my home) and Alaska were draws for me.
In her memoir, Polson is thrown into the abyss of grief when her parents are killed by a horrible bear attack while traveling along an Arctic river. Her story goes back and forth from childhood memories, her early adulthood, the logical and necessary arrangements that go with burying family members, and singing Mozart's Requiem with a Seattle choir shortly after their deaths. What ties everything together is Polson's trip down the Hulahula River, retracing the trek her father and stepmother were making the year before when they died. She travels with her adopted brother, with whom she has a strained relationship, and his female rafting friend who is a stranger to Polson. She seems to want closure. She wants answers. Does she find them on the river?
There were things I did like and things that were not so great about this book. Polson spends a lot of time going into detail describing the landscape or talking about flowers that she sees. Her vocabulary is great and I can imagine what she's relating but I felt like it dragged on a little more than I would have preferred. I wanted to get into the story, not dwell on plants and location. She also switches frequently between the past of her childhood, her situation shortly after the tragedy, and her time on the river. It does create a nice arc and each piece does fit together into the eventual picture but while going through the book it was like being pulled forcibly from one place to another when I just wanted to spend more time in one spot for awhile.
Something I wish the author wrote more about was the relationship with her brother Ned on the river. When he has the eventual blow-up it seemed to come from no where. Really, for the entire river trip he seemed like a shadow figure, not really having much character presence in the story. Sally, was portrayed like more of a friend and companion than Ned, but other than having people to paddle, Polson's story seems very solitary, almost lonely.
I have never experienced the kind of life shattering grief Polson has gone through. Where she finds her salve and how she deals with such tragedy is enlightening and inspiring. Set in beautiful landscape, this memoir has something to offer for many readers.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255
What is it about? This book is Shannon Polson's memoir. In it, she chronicles her journey through Alaska as she retraces the route her father and stepmother were taking when they were mauled to death by a grizzly bear. It is Polson's way of grieving and accepting the sudden loss of her parents. Accompanying her on this trip are her estranged brother and his girlfriend. Woven throughout the book are themes of nature, music and faith.
What did I think? Well, first off, I think Polson writes beautifully. Perhaps her music background comes into play in this because many times I found her word choice poetic ... lyrical. A little of my own background here... I have been interested in Alaska for quite some time. It is where my grandparents were married and I often heard very romanticized stories about life there from my grandmother. I was also a big fan of Michelle Mitton's now-defunct blog Scribbit, where she shared daily life as a mother of four in Alaska. Seeing as I had an interest in Alaska, I found Polson's descriptions quite thorough and detailed.
While I enjoyed and appreciated the descriptive writing, I did have some difficulty connecting to the actual story being told. Grief is a very personal thing and I think that is part of the problem. I may have had more of a connection to this book if I were dealing with a loss, so over time, it may be a book I come back to. I applaud Polson for taking a courageous journey to deal with her grief and then sharing it with the masses.
I rarely read memoirs, and requested this book by mistake because I thought it was fiction. What else could it be when a couple is mauled and killed by a grizzly bear? That just doesn't happen in real life. To my chagrin, the book that arrived was a memoir, North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson, the daughter of one of the people killed by the grizzly. I opened the pages, not quite knowing what to expect, and was greeted by two old friends: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Christian Wiman. "This has promise," I told myself and waded in, identifying almost immediately with Shannon's need to know answersâ€”under the premise that sufficient knowledge will turn back the clock. But as she discovered, there really are no answers that satisfy.
I followed Shannon through the funeral, cleaning out the house, and resuming her own life, hoping for a point of connection; I recently buried my mother. But the numbness of death continued through the reading of this well-crafted memoir, and despite its heavy subject, I could not get past the craft to probe the depths. Here's a look at the funeral:
A few days later, one of Dad's colleagues shook his head and looked into the distance. "It's hard to believe," he said. "I saw him every day of the work week and some weekends for twenty-five year. I can't believe he's gone." I felt a twinge of jealousy. He'd spent more time with my dad than I had. . .
The cemetery in Healy sits on a hill framed by mountains of the Alaska Range. Dad and Kathy's friend Shorty, who lived nearby, said that he walked his dogs there every day. It was the place with the best view of the northern lights when they danced in fall and winter night skies. The tundra was decorated with early fireweed and lupine, a fence of spruce trees. Shorty had dug a perfectly square grave facing east to hold both coffins and hauled away most of the fill. . . Dad's army friend George and his wife, Joanne, stood off to the side next to a lone pine tree, as though unable to step any closer to that hole, as though standing next to the tree might protect them somehow.
Father Jack performed the service for our small group standing on the Alaskan tundra. The mountains stood witness, watching familiar scenes of death and grief that played like shadows on their slopes each day.
I stood at the corner of the chasm closest to Dad's coffin. My breath came shallowly, a susurrus leaking oxygen to thick reluctant blood. I knelt. I kissed the hard, cold surface of the coffin. The week caught up with me like a rifle shot. I touched the coffin with faltering fingers. Again. And again. The dark, gaping hole. The cold boxes. My legs gave way. Pages 113-114.
Shannon, an avid adventurer, decides to retrace her father's path and raft along the same wild Alaskan river.
It was a sacred journey. A pilgrimage. But surely it was not only about a river. The river flowed by, running, always running. I wanted it to stop. I wanted it to flow in reverse. I wanted there to be a dam in the river somewhere far back in the mountains, a lake to catch the water and keep it safe for swimming, for drinking, for watching sunlight dancing on the surface of still waters. But the water flowed mercilessly north. There was healing in the tyranny, and tyranny in the healing. North of Hope, p. 124-125.
On her journey she begins to realize something about herself and some things about life.
"This, it now seems to me, is a difference between people of the land, and people on the land, between humility and hubris. It is why a part of our Western culture looks with envy at indigenous people's beliefs: they come from a deeper wisdom of themselves and their world than we can hope to reclaim. We envy this, while ignoring the potential of this wisdom in the name of supposed progress, even as such progress continues to erode that wisdom or the possibility of our ever recovering it." p. 169.
I would not spend too much time pondering these words. It is a mistake to believe that indigenous people (whoever they might be) have cornered the market on wisdom. The Bible speaks often about wisdom because God is the Father of Wisdom. We can stop worrying about losing the wisdom of indigenous people when God's wisdom is available to any who seek Him.
Shannon did come to realize the limitations of her trip, indeed the limitations of life. "This trip won't make it okay. It's never going to be okay. . . . It's not supposed to be okay. " p. 178. She realizes this on the river and when she visits her dying grandmother. "I understood why it is said that hearts break. I'd understood for a while now. Underground rivers of sadness scald like fire. And so I felt that ripping and burning of a soul and a heart, breaking in relief at talking to her, breaking in seeing her face and holding her hand, breaking as I felt Dad and Kathy's absence and knowing they would want to be there too, breaking because I was losing her and I didn't know how much more loss I could bear." p. 185
This memoir moved in and out of Mozart's Requiem and gave me glimpses into the life of grizzly bears and the untamed beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. It was eminently readable. I had hoped that it would give me insight into grief, but it didn't, perhaps because the author, herself, has no insight to share. This memoir left me as cold as the frigid water of that Alaskan river, and although the author continually tossed me crumbs she was unable to satiate me. But maybe that's her point. There are no satisfactory answers to life's most devastating losses.
I received this book free through a book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.
Seattle, June 23, 2005, Shannon Huffman received the devastating phone call that her father and step-mother had been killed by a rogue bear in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge Area. Her memoir North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey chronicles a somber, but affirming trip to retrace and complete her parents' Hulahula River trip, a process that will be both an expression of her grief and a needed healing.
In recent years, I've read several memoirs that documented the grieving process after the loss of loved ones. Some deaths were expected after long illnesses and some, like the Huffmans, were totally unexpected. Some memoirs focused on treasured memories and others delved into the darkest corners of human emotion as the survivors are completely swallowed by their pain. Huffman shares her pain, but at the same time shows both strength and insight that will help others. She shares her faith in God, at a time she says would be easier to not believe, in a place that should be too far north for prayer, too far north for hope. But it is prayer that she seeks when she finally makes it to the campsite when the mauling occurred. She begins to find peace and loves her dad and stepmom even more as she learns the wilderness landscape, its flowers and birds, that they loved so much. Although her raft mates are a stranger and an estranged adopted brother, Huffman finds the trip to be a sacred journey, a pilgrimage to understanding. In the end, she knows we are never alone in our pain, and we must face that life is about living in the midst of what can't be understood.
Woven throughout the details of the trip are various asides, often about her participation in a classical chorus group who sang Mozart's Requiem. Through these, she reveals much about the power of music in our relationship with God, especially in times of grief. Another powerful passage was her description of emptying the family home in preparation for its sale. Another was her compulsion in the months after the death to learn as much as she could about bears until she could reconcile her horror of the attack with a developing awe for their legacy in the Arctic.
Like her father, Polson has shown a great respect and love for the wilderness throughout her life.
She shares more of those feelings on her website and blog. Those who are moved by her wilderness trip may want to check out her other postings. The book itself I would recommend to grief counselors, pastors, and those who are dealing with loss themselves. As Polson quietly points out, that is all of us. I received a copy of North of Hope from Handlebar Publishing for review purposes. All opinions of my own
Handlebar Publishing in conjunction with Zondervan provided a complimentary book, North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, in exchange for an honest review.
Grief of any kind can lead us down a path of uncertainty. We look for the why, the purpose in the face of such loss. But, when tragedy strikes and the loss is compounded everything we hold dear to mixes into a matrix of confusion. Death stops us in our tracks. How does one stare grief down with courage and begin to live again? Where does hope intersect grief?
Author Shannon Huffman Polson answered that call to search for answers and courageously shares her journey when her life seemed to shatter. In June 2005 Polson received a phone call shaking to her core: her dad, Richard, and stepmother, Kathy, had been killed by a grizzly bear as they camped along the Hulahula River. Raised in Alaska Polson understood nature's dichotomy of its inherent beauty and wild nature. However, she never fathomed the brutality the arctic landscape could claim.
The loss of her beloved parents leads Polson to embark on the same journey down the Hulahula that stole her family one year later. Through adventure, beauty and sadness she finds life amongst her tears and questions. There are some answers that will never be known, but other questions were answered in ways she didn't expect. It would be an understatement to say this was a trip of a lifetime. Many never have to face such harrowing circumstances.
Any reader would be blessed to steal a glimpse of this woman's experience. I was completely mesmerized with Polson's beautiful eloquence. She is a master at her craft to overlay elegance on top of wild grief. Yet, the harshness of the Arctic is tangible. Her heartache bores into the reader. There has never been an author I have admired more in a memoir. The author lends words to the heart that are often difficult to put words to.
Even if grief isn't rending your heart, North of Hope will capture yours in a beat. This memoir will engage your emotions that many books simply cannot do. It can encourage the grief-stricken to look forward and up at the horizon and see hope is there. Rainbows will be seen in the storms. Hope is what will walk you through the valley. Polson captures much of the human experience in 252 pages. I found bits of myself reflected throughout. It is validating to share in someone's journey and come to understand something more of myself. I cannot recommend North of Hope enough, nor capture its soul in a review. It is beautiful book of the heart.