Well packaged history, Anna Mackenzie

Amundsen’s Way: The Race To The South Pole
Joanna Grochowicz
Allen and Unwin, $19.00,
ISBN 9781760637668

The Telegram
Philippa Werry
Pipi Press, $23.00,
ISBN 9780473462826

Amundsen’s Way delivers exactly what it promises on the cover: the story of Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, and the manner in which it was shaped by his single-minded determination to lead the first polar exploration team to reach it.

Joanna Grochowicz’s narrative non-fiction brings to life characters and events without skimping on historical fact. Her 2017 debut, Into The White: Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey, short-listed in 2018 for the New Zealand Children’s and YA Book Awards, delivered the tragic story of the British Terra Nova expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In Amundsen’s Way she builds on that picture, drawing out the tension of the race between the two teams and presenting a less stereotyped view of Amundsen than a retelling of Scott’s story usually elicits.

The presence of both teams on the ice in 1911-12 unquestionably added an element of pressure to both South Pole attempts, and Grochowicz’s account credibly reflects the poor decision-making generated on both sides by that pressure. The books can be read independently, but together they provide both a fuller picture of Antarctic exploration and an opportunity for teachers to explore perspective, unconscious bias and the shaping of “facts”.

Amundsen is presented as a driven, obsessive character, who places the highest priority on winning the race he has generated. Short snapshots of his past, printed in italics to differentiate them from the main storyline, help to round him out as a character and to provide motivation for the decisions he makes. The other men in the team are less comprehensively developed, but are nonetheless entirely convincing. The use of present tense and the liberal inclusion of dialogue ensure the story feels immediate and compelling.

Sled dogs played an enormous part in Amundsen’s expedition, and here they provide both tension and comic relief. Grochowicz doesn’t hide the reality of the dogs’ role – transport, companionship and, ultimately, food – but the survival of around a dozen of the 200 or so dogs helps to contextualise the grim reality factored into Amundsen’s planning.

Short chapters will prove very approachable for less enthusiastic readers and for class-work, but a keen reader will be swept along by the momentum of the story and will race through the book.

From the outset, it is apparent that Grochowicz has hit her stride as a writer. The characters feel fully developed and the pacing is slick, while the delivery is consistently on the mark for an intermediate-level reader. While the extensive research underpinning the book is apparent, it is the narrative voice that carries us forward. The focus shifts between characters, allowing multiple threads of the story to be presented and the growing tensions between the men, and especially those between Amundsen and similarly experienced Arctic explorer Hjalmar Johansen, to be thoroughly examined.

A key theme is loyalty: between men, towards Amundsen, to the dogs, and of the dogs to the men. While the team no doubt believed they were also making the supreme effort on behalf of their homeland, Norway, it is clear that the critical impetus for Amundsen was his desire to make his personal mark in polar exploration. One can’t help but feel sorry for his overshadowed brother Leon and the role he is allotted, thanks to Amundsen’s secret agenda.

Sarah Lippett’s illustrations and maps enhance and enrich the text, while photographs from the expedition anchor it solidly in reality. Each of Lippett’s chapter vignettes features sled dogs, reinforcing the key role these animals played in the success of Amundsen’s expedition, as well as graphically capturing the challenges of this extraordinary adventure.

Understanding the years of WWI (1914–18) and the impact they had on New Zealand society provides the context for prolific Wellington writer Philippa Werry’s latest offering. Recording the story of 14-year-old Beatrice Thomas, The Telegram is set in a community far from the front lines, yet reeling under the sustained impact of war. With many men overseas, filling jobs on the home front – especially jobs that burgeoned as a direct result of the conflict – requires a novel approach that unintentionally lays the groundwork for long-term social change.

When her widowed mother’s work hours are reduced, Beaty is obliged to leave school and get a job to help support the family. An opening at the local Telegraph Office, where news of the death and injury of servicemen arrives via Morse code, to be translated and hand-delivered by “Telegraph Boys” on bicycles, presents both opportunity and challenge. The job forces Beaty to step into the world in a way considered impossible for a girl just a few years before. She must ride a bicycle, absorb the “Instructions for the Guidance of Message-Boys” (“Boys, meaning girls as well, of course.”), memorise the layout of the town, speak to strangers, traverse the barriers of social class, and – most challenging of all – deal with telegram recipients’ distress and grief.

Delivering telegrams to families she knows sees her irrationally blamed for the bad news contained. Working in a “man’s world” means battling resistance to the idea that a girl can take on such a job: “Cleaning and tidying, that’s one thing girls are good for.”

Beaty proves resilient and compassionate, rising to the challenges of her new life even as she faces her own personal fears and grief. The troubles and triumphs of her family and friends create a comprehensive picture of the world of the time. Younger sister Tilly is a delight, her confident effervescence bubbling off the page:

I was re-reading Caleb’s letter when Tilly crashed through the door. Tilly didn’t enter a room quietly like everyone else; you always knew she’d arrived.

“Did you get it? Did you get the job? Did you?” she cried. When I said yes, she gave an excited twirl. “Oh! It’s like when Dick Whittington went off to seek his fortune. Except that you don’t have a cat, and you’re not going to London, but it’s almost the same!”

Satisfying as Beaty’s personal story is, there is so much more to this novel. The broader social history and mores of the time are stitched seamlessly through the text. Werry’s writing is flawless, each thread of her story subtly underpinning the novel’s themes and building a multi-layered image of a community and the bonds and battles that rage within it. It is no coincidence that Beatrice’s father died as a result of wounds sustained in the South African Boer War, and that loyalties forged in that conflict continue to play a part in shaping Beaty’s life. 

Alongside loyalty and commitment to family and friends, ingrained prejudice, a hidebound class structure and assumptions about the limited and specific abilities of women underpin and direct this gentle yet powerful story. The author builds a picture of small-town New Zealand, from the poor Irish Catholic family of Beaty’s best friend to the Mayor’s privileged household, that is plausible and persuasive. War brings people together, but also breaks them apart. Letters bring news from the front both raw and sanitised. The telegrams Beaty delivers shatter lives, and reinstate them.

Werry is an accomplished writer of award-winning fiction and non-fiction for younger readers. With The Telegram, she expands the body of children’s literature addressing New Zealand’s social history while additionally offering fresh insight into the WWI years, and a jolly good story to boot. The ending is neither tragic nor saccharine, but offers a powerful message of courage and hope.

Anna Mackenzie writes contemporary, historic and speculative fiction for adults and younger readers.

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Posted in Children, History, Non-fiction
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