I have read a lot of young adult fiction while crafting my monthly column for Bookslut but Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness completely surprised me. Mildly disturbing from the beginning, the story follows a teenaged Sym who ends up on a surprise trip to Antarctica with her polar obsessed Uncle Victor. The flaky uncle would raise red flags for anyone right away but it is Sym's self professed love for doomed Antarctic explorer Lawrence "Titus" Oates on page one that will give many readers pause. Plucky teenagers are practically required in YA novels but crushes on dead legendary explorers? That doesn't happen — ever. So even though the book travels into the territory of thriller classic it is the inclusion of Oates that elevates The White Darkness to a whole new level. McCaughrean isn't afraid to make her heroine a geek — a polar geek even — and for that I am mightily impressed.
Initially Sym is just like any other kid with a dead father, overwhelmed mother and rather pushy relative (who it turns out is really only a relative in that "old family friend" kind of way). Titus is her imaginary friend but even that makes some kind of sense; from her own reading she has known about his part in Robert Scott's final doomed South Pole expedition for quite awhile. But while watching DVDs of The Last Place on Earth alone one night she became captivated by the story, particularly one element of it. "And there, at the heart of it, was Captain Oates; so sublimely beautiful that his image passed clean through my retina and scorched itself on my brain." Sym and Oates were an inseparable "couple" from that point on.
Interestingly enough, McCaughrean was impressed by the television program and sought out the actor who portrayed Oates. "Thanks to the video," she explained to me, "I was already making use of his 1986 good looks and amazingly sexy voice. His voice has not changed, and he has considerable charm. Of such things is fiction made."
In many ways Titus Oates was far more than just a member of Scott's 1910 expedition — he is the ultimate symbol of everything noble and selfless about the British Empire. In The Frozen Ship, Sarah Moss's fascinating look at history and myth surrounding polar exploration, Scott, whose death was widely reported in 1913, was ". . .an iconic figure for an England desperate to persuade the brightest and best to leave their work, their studies and their families for the near certainty of death on the battlefields of southern France." Even into the 1980s, she writes, British schools were teaching that ". . .the deceitful foreigner [Roald] Amundsen had used dishonourable means to stop the noble English Scott from reaching the South Pole first. . ." Scott's high mythic status elevated Oates as well, particularly as recorded by Scott, Oates sacrificed himself in an attempt to save his fellow explorers. He famously lifted his dying self from their tent and stated, "I am just going outside and may be some time," before disappearing into a blizzard. Unfortunately for the surviving members there was nothing that could save them but Scott still recorded Oates final words in his journal thus preserving them forever. As Moss explains, " 'I may be some time' has become a catchphrase of Englishness, so widely known as to be the title of Frances Spufford's book on polar exploration, subtitled, Ice and the English Imagination."
Spufford's book was well known to McCaughrean who recounts that he believes the British are obsessed with Scott's last journey because "as we read it we travel with him all the way to Death only to discover that we are still alive at the end but with a greater sense of the pricelessness and fragility of life." She has her own theories as to why Scott is so much better known than Amundsen, who actually made it to the South Pole first. "Why do I think Scott's expedition eclipsed Amundsen's? Because self–sacrifice was the order of the day. Because English–language media were more influential than Norwegian media. Because everyone on Scott's expedition kept a diary and, taken as a whole, there was something in there to appeal to everyone whereas Amundsen's diary is more matter–of–fact. Or is it because Scott and his men faced death in the way that every one of us would like to face it but we know we couldn't — with equanimity and heroism."
Easy enough to understand then why even in the 21st century a British kid like Sym would turn to Oates as her troubled family fell even more apart.
Sym's rather quirky affectation of "talking" to the explorer (something she knows enough to keep to herself), becomes of deadly importance after she and Uncle Victor embark on their Antarctic cruise. After their tour group finds itself in more and more dire circumstances, (all for very mysterious reasons) Victor reveals that he has long ago succumbed to a myth of his own. It turns out that Sym's know–it–all uncle is a follower of John Symmes's hollow Earth theory. (This revelation is when our heroine's name starts to make a horrible amount of sense.) Victor thinks there is a lot more going on underground in Antarctica than above and he is determined to prove it in a very big way. Sym finds herself literally dragged along for the ride as Victor maneuvers them further and further away from civilization looking for his hole in the ground. It is only Titus Oates who sticks with her, refusing to give up; it is only Oates who convinces Sym that survival is even possible.
McCaughrean knew exactly the sort of dynamic she was creating with these two personalities, particularly that of Sym, who represents all those teenagers who suffer while "being pursued by the massive bulldozer of peer–pressure." When the author was young she saw adolescence as ". . .a gymnasium for the emotions: a practice area rather than the sports field itself, where we learn to duck, dodge, catch and tackle all the huge emotions: hate, love, desire, passion, empathy, sympathy, hormonal flux, independence, interdependence, separateness, loneliness. . . .Nowadays, though, it is different."
"In fact," she explained further, " 'virgin' has become a term of abuse: I have even heard boys shout it at girls in the street, like a swearword. Seeing this horrendous development work its havoc on my own daughter's class at school (she was 14 at the time), I wanted to write something heartening for all those girls (and boys?) left thinking they are somehow inadequate, unnatural, babyish, stupid, cowardly, frigid. . .if they are not ready to join the game." The author knew that using a frozen landscape for a character's life to metaphorically thaw was not a new idea, but by giving her a companion (albeit an imaginary one) she allows Sym to lean on someone; to rely on someone other than herself as she tackles not only the harsh reality that surrounds her, but also her intense inner turmoil. Sym has never fit in, anywhere, until she "met" Titus. That fits perfectly with McCaughrean's target audience of teenagers struggling with outsider status and allows her to develop Sym in tandem with the thickening plot driven by Uncle Victor's maniacal vision.
The deeper she travels into the continent's interior as part of her uncle's twisted dream, the more Sym finds herself disappearing into the real life of Titus Oates in her mind. It's an old trick; something she has done before when overwhelmed with problems in her life. "Sometimes when I need to get further away than usual," she thinks, "I'm Florence Chambers." Chambers was a young woman Oates met only briefly but apparently carried a flame for until his death. As a different Florence, one who eloped with Oates, Sym imagines changing history, she considers sharing a real life with Oates as the kind of woman he would have loved:
"And I ride on the back of Titus's motorbike, and look after his pet deer and exercise his horse in the cool, misty mornings, and afterward we curry the sweat from its flanks, the horse in parentheses between us, our arms mirroring each other as we brush, the tail, splashing us each in turn, amid a smell of saddle soap and straw, because if Titus were ever to love a woman, it wouldn't be anyone helpless or feeble who cried for want of an airplane or out of fright and couldn't make her legs stop shaking or keep her wits about her or marshal her facts; it wouldn't be anyone like that; it wouldn't be anyone like that; no one like that."
The myth of Oates's strength on that last horrific march back from the Pole is what Sym needs to provide comfort on her own dangerous journeys, her own difficult adolescent moments. She remembers also the Brontë sisters who ". . .invented a whole town of people, didn't they — Glasstown — and wrote stories about it in microscopically small handwriting." In times of crisis, Glasstown becomes the metaphor for her interior life, as his Florence, with Oates.
"Anything rather than remember Dad lighting bonfires from books to keep imaginary jackals away from our windows. Glasstown.
"Anything rather than drive over a frozen sea, with people who are not what they seem, toward a gaping hole in the Earth.
"Just you and me on Thursday in Glasstown, eh, Titus."
"Just you and me, Florence," said Titus.
It is through dozens of internal decisions and conversations like these that Sym identifies more and more with her ideal of Oates and separates herself first from family trauma and later from the insanity she finds in Antarctica. McCaughrean knew that Oates was the perfect choice for Sym's fixation as he holds a similar fascination for so many others. ". . .there is something about this taciturn, stoical, insouciant, wry 32–year–old 'outsider' to Scott's group, the manner of his death and the fact that his body was never found, which renders him Romantic in the true sense of the word — like Antoine de St Exupery flying his plane off the radar and into immortality. I needed Sym's companion to be impossibly Ideal," she explains, "someone every female reader could easily fall in love with, every male reader admire; handsome brave, funny, quirky, modest, tragic. . .The more I read up on Oates, the better he lent himself to my purpose. . .the Indian sunshine, the debonair bravery, the pet deer, the useless spelling, the crazy exploits. . . ." This romantic vision is the Oates that Sym needs; the purest and finest Oates that the historical record preserves. But even Sym's ideal will not give her all the answers.
"Did you take morphine, Titus? Before you went outside. I always wondered. Did you?
But Titus declined to say — declined, I think, to be in the same room with people as worthless as us, let alone confide the intimate circumstances of his death."
He is strong until the end, even when he is not really there, even when he is only as one writer, and one girl, could imagine him.