From the Novel Nine: A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

For the February meeting, we discussed A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, published in 1938, and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, published in 1912.

We were captivated by A Woman in the Polar Night, the story of RItter’s year spent in Spitsbergen (aka Svalbard), an island four hundred miles north of Norway and the largest wilderness area in Europe. Ritter was a well-to-do Austrian, who, prior to her year in Spitsbergen, had never strayed far from her comfortable surroundings. Yet in 1934, thirty-six-year old Christiane joined her husband Hermann Ritter and Karl Nicholaisen, an intrepid Norwegian adventurer, in Spitsbergen; both of them had been living there for at least several years, making their living by trapping foxes.

All three chose to endure hardships in the Arctic far beyond what most of us could begin to imagine: isolation, cold, wind, darkness, monotonous and unreliable food and equipment (stoves that emitted black smoke)– the three of them living in a wretchedly tiny hut (“a small, bleak bar box”). Karl expected Christiane to go crazy sooner or later and “provide some mid-winter entertainment.”

Instead, Christiane fell in love with the beauty of the Arctic, even writing that “in centuries to come, men will go to the Arctic as in biblical times they withdrew to the desert, to find the truth again.” Her descriptions of the landscape, the ice and the sea, of the sun disappearing and then returning weeks later, of months lived in twilight, of foxes and seals and seabirds, are exquisite. She was also prescient: “ … civilization is suffering from a severe vitamin deficiency because it cannot draw its strength directly from nature, eternally young and eternally true … Only now do I grasp the real meaning and world-transforming element in the saying: ‘Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.’”

We were also intrigued with the questions Christiane left unanswered: she had left a daughter in Austria, but never wrote about that daughter or how it felt to leave a young child for so long; the relationship between her and her husband seemed lacking in affection, but we weren’t sure whether that was true or whether she was just writing within the limitations of the times; she never wrote about what it was like to return to pre-war Austria in 1935.

Christiane Ritter lived to the age of 103, and her book was a bestseller for years.

We also enjoyed Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, but the stories suffered somewhat by comparison to the remarkable Woman in the Polar Night. Leacock’s short stories were imaginative and witty, even “cheeky” as described by some, but we thought that they might have a greater impact if they were read as a weekly serial rather than gathered in a collection. Certainly, many of the characters rang true for those of us who grew up in small, Ontario towns, but the stories themselves seemed to come from a somewhat more innocent time.

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