On January 17, 1912, Captain Scott and his team of explorers reached the South Pole, 100 years ago today. They weren’t the first ones there–Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team beat them there by a month. Scott also found that getting there was the easier part. All five of the men who reached the Pole died trying to get back again.
So why am I telling you this depressing story? I suppose because I don’t actually find it depressing. Tragic, yes; depressing, no. They did fail–but that’s usually not how the story is told. They died martyrs to the adventure and heroes of history, proving the length of man’s endurance and determination, pushing out the frontier and chasing the impossible dream.
Also, Titus Oates, one of Scott’s men, has a major role in one of my favorite books, The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean. I freely admit that most of my impression of Scott and his journey came from her book.
So in honor of the anniversary, here’s to impossible dreams (hopefully with better planning!) and I’m re-posting my review of The White Darkness. It was only the third book review I ever posted here, so most of you probably weren’t here to read it the first time anyway.
“I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now—which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years, I’ll be dead, too, and the age difference won’t matter.”
This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines of a book (right up there with “All children, except one, grow up”). I read this in a bookstore and knew immediately that I had to read The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean.
The story of fourteen year old Symone’s trip to Antarctica, and how everything goes horribly wrong, is an exciting adventure in its own right. But what I really love about this book is the relationship between Sym and Titus.
Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates (at right, though he smiles more in the book) was an Antarctic explorer who went to the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott. As Sym notes, Titus has been dead for over ninety years—he died in Antarctica in 1912, with Scott and the rest of their party. But he lives on in the present day in Sym’s head. It’s not a fantasy—he’s not a ghost—it isn’t a time travel story—she’s not insane. Titus is Sym’s imaginary friend. And who wouldn’t want to be with “the fortunate Captain Oates,” as Titus describes himself in Chapter Twenty-one. He’s charming and witty and chivalrous, the kind of friend any girl would want.
Or as Sym puts it, “He is everything, everything, everything I ever admired and wanted and couldn’t have. He is everything I needed and couldn’t find in real life.” And so he is her friend and confidante and loyal supporter through, first, the Hell of not fitting in at high school, and later, the Hell of the ice plains of Antarctica.
It’s hard to explain how and why a story about a teenage girl and her imaginary friend works—but it does, beautifully. I’ve read other books featuring imaginary friends, and no one handles it as masterfully as Geraldine McCaughrean.
I also have to give a nod to the audiobook. Ruth Sillers narrates most of the book as Sym, but Richard Morant narrates all of Titus’ dialogue. I listened to a brief excerpt when I first found out about this. Similar to reading that first line of the novel, I heard Morant deliver seven words and promptly handed over $25 on iTunes to buy the audio—and I don’t usually spend money easily or impulsively. But believe me, his voice is worth following to Antarctica.
There’s a back story to Morant as narrator that I love. Within the book, Sym describes watching The Last Place on Earth, a miniseries about the expedition, which is pivotal to inspiring her image of Titus. And in The Last Place on Earth, Titus is portrayed by—Richard Morant.
I didn’t know much of anything about Antarctica or Antarctic explorers (sorry, Titus) before reading The White Darkness. McCaughrean provides a helpful background on Oates and Scott, so if that’s you too, you won’t have a problem following the story. And, like me, by the end you’ll find Antarctica much more interesting than you ever dreamed. And while it still may not be high on your list of places to visit—it isn’t for me!—Antarctica will conjure up a magic it never had.
Author’s site: http://www.geraldinemccaughrean.co.uk/
And you can see the cover from my copy up there in the heading, towards the left.