North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson (Zondervan; 255 pages; $16.99).
Shannon Huffman Polson’s sobering yet sentimental memoir North of Hope is an extraordinary voyage of self-discovery for the author. On June 25, 2005, the writer’s father and stepmother were declared dead after a bear attacked them in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A wave of grief and anger enveloped Polson.
Each day, she “came home from work and stretched out on the couch, flattened like roadkill.” Polson eloquently illustrates the deep sorrow she felt; her misery is palpable.
The memoirist envied “cultures that have mourning traditions,” those who wear black or who tear their clothing. “Why had our culture done away with all that?” she asked. “To spare the majority the discomfort that each of us must one day face? And by doing so robbing every one of us of the space to grieve and neutering society’s ability to mourn with the bereaved, our chance to appreciate life more for knowing death?” Polson felt cheated. It occurred to her “that grief is something imposed, but that grieving is something that must be learned and, like anything of consequence, would reveal its realities slowly, over a lifetime.”
But Polson does not have a lifetime; she must grapple with her anguish somehow so she can “make it through the shadowed valley and someday come out the other side.”
One year after the horrible tragedy, Polson and two companions, one of whom is her adopted brother, set off on a daring expedition to trace their father and stepmother’s route. The Arctic was a place her dad loved, a magical place that “worked its way under his skin” and “became a part of him.” Polson embarks on the expedition to “find” her father, “to know him,” and to “glimpse some of the magic” he and his wife had experienced on their trip.
Polson writes, “Throughout humankind’s long history, the idea of journey has carried with it expectations of adventure, of wildlife, of challenge, of conquest.” As the writer and those who accompany her undertake this arduous and dangerous Arctic journey, we go along with them. Polson ably navigates her narrative with flashbacks and incredible descriptions of Alaska’s wildlife. Their adventure is both beautiful and perilous, especially when the group spots a pair of grizzlies. The bears fill Polson with wonder, but they also repulse her as she thinks what one did to her family.
By turns sobering and inspirational, North of Hope is a meditation on grief and family and a daughter’s love letter to her deceased father. Polson’s memoir is also a quiet yet powerful treatise on environmental changes and the effects of global warming and development in the Arctic. If you enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, then you will love North of Hope. Polson does for Alaska’s Arctic what Strayed did for the Pacific Crest Trail.
Although Polson structures her account around the Requiem Mass, North of Hope is rousing, as these funeral hymns lead her to a river and help her find her way forward.