How to Survive in the North is a graphic novel where three northern tales — two historical and true, one fictional and set in present-day — are woven together in an artistic cartoon arrangement.
While the title suggests the book may provide guidance through an icy winter, it’s more likely to urge you to consider life choices rather than give you palpable know-how.
Intertwining Robert Bartlett’s failed expedition to Wrangel Island in 1913, the 1921 expedition of Ada Blackjack, and the personal dilemma of an American university professor in 2013, the book contemplates how significant our own faults or virtues are in the outcome of a situation.
Thematically tied to the Arctic, the stories are loosely paralleled through the theme of decision-making and consequence.
In 2013 the fictional Sullivan Barnaby is forced to take a mandatory sabbatical from his tenure teaching position at a New Hampshire university. After discovering his office was previously occupied by the intrepid arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Barnaby delves into a personal research project. He starts frequenting the library, scouring the journals of northern expeditions to learn everything about his predecessor.
This segues into the two historical vignettes the book covers. We read (and see) the real-life story of Robert Bartlett and his crew who become ice-bound and drift 1,000 miles off course, and how Ada Blackjack fends off Arctic Hysteria, polar bears and scurvy in her struggle for survival. Intermittently, we come back to modern-day Barnaby reading about their journeys as he struggles to come to terms with the consequences of an illicit love affair in his own life.
While some of the connections feel a little far-reached, this is an immensely enjoyable book. Author Luke Healy complements the weight of emotional turmoil with a simple aesthetic design. The tight blocks of picture strips are uncluttered with straightforward character design and a modest colour palette. Cleanly drawn, the pictures are quite charming and engaging. Healy uses a change in colour tones to shift between the three narratives, each one is matched with its own level of darker or lighter hues.
With easily comprehensible transitions and a simple design you can flow through the pages of How to Survive in the North a little quicker than your average graphic novel, which is good because it’s a bit longer than the average one, too. If you’re new to graphic novels, I suggest this one as a great introduction to the genre!
How to Survive in the North offers only a brief overview of those historical northern expeditions, it’s a great instigator for further research. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about Robert Bartlett, Ada Blackjack and other explorers, and, I believe, kindling a larger curiosity in a topic is always the sign of an author’s job well done.
How to Survive in the North was written by Ireland-based cartoonist, Luke Healy, and published November 15, 2016 by Nobrow Press.