Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
— Robert Frost
Marcel Theroux’s marvelous Far North shows the world perishing twice: obliquely, far away, in fire, and up close with a long, cold shiver. Out of habit, rather than any expectation of real trouble — most trouble is long dead — our gun-toting narrator Makepeace patrols the deserted streets of a remote Siberian settlement, Evangeline. The city was settled by an earlier generation of American Quakers fleeing violence and materialism:
The settlers got more land than they knew what to do with. And it seemed a smart bet to us. Our summers in the north were getting longer and our winters milder. No one was overly concerned that what was easing the cold of our winters was making the crowded parts of the globe hot and hungry and restless.
I was born in the false dawn of those early years. The dawn that was really a sunset.
But when the effects of climate change sent more and more hungry people north, the town’s nonviolent ideals came under attack. Makepeace, the last sheriff, reflects on not just the death of family and friends, but on their hypocrisy, blindness, and selfishness. It’s enough to make anyone jaded, and Makepeace blots out painful memories in the day-to-day labor of survival: hunting, preserving, melting scrap metal for bullets.
Things change when Makepeace encounters a Chinese stranger who is robbing a nearby house for books, using them for fuel. Though Makepeace doesn’t read, Evangeline’s books are sacred, and shots are fired. And here I’m going to make a revelation of a major surprise — even though it happens only in the third chapter — and discuss the rest of the book behind a jump! If you’d rather not know, go read this terrific novel for yourself.
The chapter after the stranger is shot begins,
Killing always sits heavy with me.
Whether that’s because of my being a woman, or because my disposition is naturally soft-hearted for another reason, I don’t know.
I’ve had to fight the womanish things in my nature for almost as long as I can remember. These are not soft-hearted, womanish times.
Being tall, and broad in the shoulders, and deep-voiced, it’s been easy enough to pass for a man.
The stranger, Ping, also turns out to be a woman passing for a man. As Makepeace helps her recover (it is also revealed that she is pregnant) the two slowly become friends.
Now, having the protagonist be a woman could sound gimmicky, but in fact, for me, it shifted everything around. First, I was completely and utterly fooled by those first three chapters: a gun-toting survivalist doesn’t line up with my view of even the most badass female protagonist, apparently. But Makepeace doesn’t change her voice after the revelation, and I saw her entirely as a woman after that. Theroux’s work in fooling me was simple: be selective, and let me fall prey to my own assumptions.
Secondly, the dangers of a post-apocalyptic world are different for women, and those dangers stem not least from those who want to “protect,” and thus control women. Pregnancy is another point where women are both centers of hope and of extreme vulnerability in a world like this. In Theroux’s novel, pregnancy can mean hope or despair; it can be the result of trauma or the result of intimacy and friendship in the face of death. Sexual violence is an issue, of course, but Makepeace is never reduced to her past trauma. She is so thoughtful, so generous, and so pragmatic that her ability to assess each situation is rarely or never damaged by her pain. And it’s been Makepeace’s hard life since that event that has made her the person she is, not that single event. Theroux never makes the mistake of making her all about her sex or her gender.
One of the things I loved about this book was the landscape. I’ve been interested for years in Arctic and Antarctic exploration, and Makepeace’s navigation of the Siberian landscape was fascinating to me. Theroux explores the way that, at the end of the world, our future will be their past — technology is only a whisper, a ruined supposition to them — and the only possible future is our distant past, a return to paleolithic technologies, skins of animals, old ways that will outlast all the batteries and combustion engines. Makepeace finds herself alone (or, far worse, not alone) in a land of ice and snow, “nine months of cold and three of living hell-for-leather.”
But she never becomes hopeless. She is not disgusted by technology, as her parents were, but exhilarated by it: “What a piece of work man is! What can’t he do when he has a mind to?” When she sees a plane crash, she gets “fidgety with hope” and takes off to find out where it has come from, even after it occurs to her that it might not be all good news. Even when her relationships are wary and cautious, she is ready for sympathy and for life.
This was such an interesting book. It did a wonderful job of putting you bleakly post-apocalypse, but at a place where people are learning to live with whatever is left: this is not the nuclear winter of The Road. (I’m sure Cormac McCarthy would disagree with me that his book is hopeless, given its ending, but come on.) Makepeace is a compelling and fascinating character, living in a world that is far north: compasses, physical and often moral, don’t work. Watching navigation in such a world was sad, but also invigorating and enlightening, and left me thinking.