19 November 2013

Adrift On An Ice Pan, by Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

Posted by Callan Bentley

iceThis very short narrative (hardly even a proper “book” in the modern sense of the word) is by the survivor of a wretched ordeal, as the title suggests, off the coast of Newfoundland in 1908. I consumed the audiobook version, as a free download from my public library, and finished it in a single day’s commuting, with time left over for a podcast or two. The deal is this: The author was serving as a missionary doctor in Labrador (?) and on page 1 leaves church to get an urgent request to amputate a boy’s leg some distance away. He hitches up his dog team to his sledge, and starts mushing. He makes it a village some ways along the path to the patient, and overnights there. The next morning, he disappears off the “radar” (not that such a thing existed in 1908). In attempting a short cut across a frozen bay, Grenfell finds himself the victim of a sudden shift in the wind, which takes the ice packed into the bay and quickly disperses it out to sea. In moments, he goes from well-stocked, dry, and in command, to adrift on a cake of ice with his dogs, but none of his supplies. His sledge sinks before his eyes, and he’s soaked through with freezing water and no replacement clothing. His matches are a sodden mass. But: he has his knife. With this knife, he kills several of his dogs to harvest their skins, and builds a macabre signaling flag from some of their frozen legs, lashed together. He passes two nights on this drifting ice raft before the sharp eyes of a local fisherman catch sight of him and a rescue party is organized. It’s a rough thing to have happen, but Grenfell survives, and the locals rejoice deeply at his deliverance, considering his importance in the community as a healer of the sick. In the audiobook version, a local Newfie reads an epilogue wherein one of the rescuers recounts the rescue effort and the aftermath of the event.

Review: scary stuff, and I hope I never have to go through it. The book was written lightly enough that it keeps moving, but I would have appreciated some more detail on the doctor’s background – that is assumed at the start of the narrative. The narrator is a deeply religious man, and there are extended passages devoted to his perceptions of the supernatural implications of his predicament. Glad I gave it a listen; not a life-changing read.