I have always been a dreamer. I have always been that guy, the guy who you would always catch staring off into space, dreaming of what it would be like be somewhere else, to be in a place completely foreign and new with endless discoveries and landscapes straight out of a fantasy. In my early to mid twenties, whenever I’d envision the perfect getaway, I always imagined a place cultured and refined, a place filled with interesting history far away from all those fangled beaches where tourists guzzle frilly umbrella drinks, children run amuck, and some irritating tour guide is always dictating your schedule for you… (However, now at 35, I wholeheartedly retract that statement after experiencing the tropical awesomeness of Mexico during my honeymoon).
Still, many travelers stick to their guns when they decide their destinations. For many, the ideal vacation is a solo-sojourn to a remote part of the globe, (and I do mean remote). Joanna Kavenna is such a traveler. Her nonfiction debut, The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, is a mythology-infused travelogue that extends to the farthest reaches of the known, and unknown, areas of the northern hemisphere, (Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Estonia, and the Shetland Islands). It may not be a stretch to proclaim that no writer has ever chronicled the otherworldly beauty and sheer isolation of the icy north has well as Kavenna. Her poetic passages leave you longing for her next destination, her next discovery, hoping that she will never stop searching for Thule, because with every crystal-blue fjord and every gleaming glade that Kavenna describes, you will want to be right there with her. I almost wanted to plan a trip to the Norwegian fjords immediately after reading.
Thule is a place of a legend, a sort of Atlantis of the north. The first accounts of its existence come from the Greek explorer, Pytheas, who claimed to have discovered it during the 4th century. Pytheas described Thule as a place of endless splendor beyond the borders of the known world, a place shrouded with, “mist, sea and land, a frozen ocean, a midnight sun in the summer, a twilight sky throughout the winter.” Since its alleged discovery, Thule has been referenced and romanticized in literature by writers as diverse as Virgil, Shelly, Poe, and even Charlotte Bronte. Whispers of a “superior” race existing in this beautiful land later led the Nazis to claim that Thule was the ancient origin of the Aryan race. During the early years of the Third Reich, a “Thule Society” was even created as a means of culminating Aryan propaganda. Kavenna doesn’t shy away from this darkened history to the subject, and even makes some detours in Berlin to investigate the Nazi affiliation with Thule. Her spirited curiosity leads her to many people with vastly different lifestyles: Viking warrior descendents, seal-skinning Enuits, Shetland Island pub-goers, Norwegian women forced into exile due to their Nazi blood ties, drunken Russian coal miners, and even the President of Estonia, (who firmly believes his country to be the one and only Thule). All of Kavenna’s encounters with these people are fascinating, but what will ultimately captivate you are the passages devoted to the landscapes themselves. You will feel like you have found the world’s most best kept secrets. The translucent fields of ice and the deep blue fjords of the distant north offer a sublime beauty far away from the things of man. By the time I got to the end of the book, I couldn’t have cared less whether Thule existed or not because I felt I had already experienced everything that all of the poets and writers have ever said about it.
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