This Cold Heaven By Gretel Ehrlich/Book Review

Have you have ever had it where a book has been so good, and satisfied you on so many levels, that you don’t think you can properly sum up all your feelings and thoughts about it in a review? Well, that’s exactly how I’m feeling right now about This Cold Heaven. I used 75 post it notes throughout its 377 pages. I think that’s testament enough as to how much I enjoyed it, and all the information that I wanted to recollect, and capture with my notebook and pen. This book is meaty, it’s fulfilling, it left me feeling like I hadn’t only got my money’s worth, but that the hours spend reading it were possibly some of the finest reading hours of my entire life.


This book is about Gretel Ehrlich’s seven seasons in Greenland, during which she travels across the vast land, and develops deep bonds with its people, their culture and history. The opening paragraph is utterly exquisite.


I first travelled to Greenland in the late summer of 1993, not to write a book but to get above the treeline. Still recovering from an accident that affected my heart, I found it difficult to go to an altitude where I felt at home. I learned that the treeline can be a factor of latitude not just altitude – it is a biological boundary created be the cold – and came to think of the treeless polar north as the top of a mountain lying on its side.


When I had finished reading this intro, I closed the book, clutched it to my chest and squeezed it. Twee? Maybe, but I couldn’t give a damn. This book had me, and it had me good, and I knew that I was going to enjoy every single word of it.


This book is vast. I learned such a phenomenal amount that my notebook is fit to bursting. I won’t go through chapter by chapter – if I did that, this review would end up being at least five or six thousand words – but I’ll pick out parts which I deem are important to mention, so that you can get a good feel for it.


In the preface, Ehrlich talks interestingly about the origins of the Inuit people; Greenland’s first explorers and inhabitants.

Descendants of central Asians, Inuit hunters and their families began crossing the 200-mile-wide Bering Land Bridge from Siberia perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago and slowly wandered across the polar north. They reached Greenland 5,000 years ago. Their cold-adapted, boreal culture, a single entity, stretches 6,000 miles across ice caps, pressure ice, barren lands, rivers, mountains, fjords and frozen oceans. The hunter from Qaanaaq, Greenland, tells his child the same story in the same language as the hunter from Pelly Bay in the Northwest Territories, or from Point Hope, Alaska.


Towards the end of the preface, Ehrlich goes onto talk about how the Inuit continue to fight for what remains of their old ways.


Stripped of their public ceremonial life in the 1700s, they cling tenaciously to traditional hunting practises and carry forward an old memory of how to endure Arctic hardships and how to thrive in the pleasure it brings. It was not only a life of cold, filth, frostbite, snowblindness, and starvation but also one of intimacy and comradeship, resourcefulness and magic, when shamans in trance made soul-flights under the ice, when parents told children cautionary tales by seal-oil lamplight, when men fashioned harpoons from narwhal tusks and walrus ivory points and travelled on dogsleds made from whale bone with rolled-up frozen peat runners, and ice was cut with knives whose blades were hacked from a meteorite.


And how the Inuit have learned from the ice.


The Inuit mind is sharpened by  vulnerability. It is a keenness that shows them where to go and how to live. Strong-minded, agile, humorous, cool-headed, and quiet, they have learned from the ice: how its only consistency is movement, how its solidarity masks what cannot stay.

In the first chapter, ‘Darkness Visable: Uummannaq, Greenland, 1995’ Ehrlich talks of the astonishment people display when she makes the move northwards.


People always ask, Why do you want to go north in the dark time of the year? There’s nothing up there. But Greenlanders know the opposite is true. “Summer is boring. Nothing for the dogs to do. In winter and spring the fjords and bays are ice. We go for long trips on our sleds – hunting every day, living wherever we want, and visiting friends in villages. That’s when we are happy.”


I felt my stomach turn when Ehrlich described how, as ‘ships plied Greenland’s west coast’ contact was made between the Inuit and foreigners.


In 1576 Martin Frobisher ordered his crew members to kidnap an Inuit kayaker who came up alongside the ship. Two others were bought along, and died shortly after arriving in England. By 1660, thirty Eskimos had been captured. As late as 1906, the American explorer Robert Peary bought Minik and his father to New York as “living specimens” for the American Museum of Natural History.


During her journeys across the ice with hunters, and often, their families, Ehrlich creates these tight bonds, and puts across a beautifully clear picture of how warm these people are, how their respect for the land and its animals never ceases. It’s utterly beautiful to behold. I did get rather emotional at one point though, where Ehrlich talks about the capture of Nanuq as she was journeying across the ice with an Inuit family. One of the men’s polar bear trousers had become thin, and he required a new pair.


Nanuq! Nanuq! he cried, pointing. A polar bear and her small cub were trotting across the head of a wide bay…Mikele had already cut two of his dogs loose and they chased the bear. He released two more. The snow was deep and the little cub couldn’t keep up. The mother stopped, wheeled around, and ran back for her baby, but Mikele’s loose dogs caught up and held the bear at bay…Ilaitsuk told me that because the bear had a cub, she would not be shot, that Mikele would soon release her. The something went terribly wrong: one of the dogs spied the cub. Before we could get there, the dog was on the cub and went for its jugular…the cub was alive but weak…he was whiter than his mother and his button nose and eyes were black holes in a world of white…sometimes he stood up, but he was weak and began panting. His eyes rolled back. He staggered and was dead…with the cub dead, the choice was made to kill the mother. …There were three gunshots. A paw went up in agony, scratching the ice wall as she went down. Then she rolled on her back and was dead.   


This book is so dense and rich with fascinating facts, stories and insights that you feel well nourished after every chapter. The characters Ehrlich meets along the way are memorable, and stay with you long after you’ve put the book down. There are moments of high emotion, and moments of quiet beauty. It’s easily one of the finest books I’ve ever read about the north.