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Book Review: Luke Healy's How to Survive in the North

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on June 19, 2017
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Melancholy and quiet, How to Survive in the North is a stunning graphic novel that interweaves three haunting narratives. Through gorgeous illustrations, the three stories take a look at the endurance of the human spirit in the face of isolation and hardship. Two of these narrative strands are drawn from real historical events from the Arctic exploration of early 20th century. The other narrative is a fictional story that provides a modern juxtaposition to these tales of Arctic survival. Together they create a captivating collage of both sadness and bravery. How to Survive in the North is a truly enchanting debut graphic novel from author and illustrator Luke Healy.

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Throughout Healy’s various narratives, there is a common thread. Sitting behind the book's three stories is the shadowy figure of Canadian Arctic explorer and ethnologist, Vihljalmur Stefansson. In 1912 Stefansson set out to prove his “Friendly Arctic” theory, which proposed that all the food and fuel necessary for survival in the polar North was simply sitting under the ice. He was convinced that these resources would allow for further exploration of the Arctic, and even that they would make this seemingly inhospitable landscape a place for human habitation. He was also convinced that anyone would discover this for themselves given the right circumstances, and so he began his experiments, leading his unsuspecting subjects into treacherous situations in the icy North, abandoning them, and waiting for them to thrive.

How to Survive in the North recounts two of these experiments, the first tells of Steffanson’s 1913 expedition on the ill-fated ship the Karluk. Steffanson set out under the premise of Arctic exploration, but the ship quickly found itself caught in ice. Steffanson swiftly abandoned the team, escaping on skis, and leaving the Karluk’s captain, Robert Bartlett, to provide for his now shipwrecked crew. The second narrative strand describes an expedition in 1921, encouraged and planned by Steffanson, to claim Wrangel island for Canada. Among the crew was an Inupiat seamstress named Ada Blackjack, who joined the expedition to fund treatment for her ailing son. The team became stranded in bad weather and the story follows their attempts to fend for themselves and stay alive. Both Blackjack and Bartlett exhibit incredible fortitude and heroism in their struggle for survival, and the book tracks their various experiences. Set against these two is a story of Healy’s own invention. Sullivan Barnaby is a professor at a university in modern day Hanover, New Hampshire. Awkward and lonely, Barnaby has been recently required to take a sabbatical after his relationship with Kevin, a student at the university, is discovered. With a new-found abundance of free time, Barnaby find himself going through the Steffanson archive in the university library.

The three stories are told concurrently, intercutting with each other, and each depicting the hardships of isolation and the struggle for survival in hostile territory. Sitting alongside the historical stories of daring bravery and unimaginable hardship, the fictional account of Barnaby does rather seem minute and insignificant, yet it works as a powerful juxtaposition, while maintaining its own sense of pathos in the minutia. Indeed this sense of minutia is key to all three stories, for even in the vast and endless Arctic waste, our protagonists constantly turn their thoughts inwards to personal reflection. All three are learning to come to terms with themselves, just as much as they are with their surroundings. The tone of all three of the stories is even the same, whether it’s Sullivan Barnaby’s long hours in the library, or Ada Blackjack’s monotonous search for food, there’s a quiet and subdued atmosphere to the book. 

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This is reinforced by Healy’s choice of a limited colour palette. Each story gets only a few colours, mainly in soft pastels of blue, orange, green, and pink. Here Healy stays clear of some obvious artistic choices. His colours are vibrant and warm rather that the endless white we might expect from Arctic wildernesses. The book’s sense of loneliness and isolation is instead conveyed through the repetitive and simplistic backdrops, that seem to stretch out indefinitely. This is make all the more striking by Healy’s astute use of wide shot panels to emphasize the barren emptiness around the characters. His characters are at times no more than a speck on the landscape. Along with this however, Healy also makes striking use of crowded panels. His panels are generally quite small, and at times he populates them with many characters. This gives a sense of the claustrophobia of being stuck somewhere with a group of people, and this produces a different quality of isolation. The two artistic techniques however can mean that it is occasionally difficult to recognise and keep track of some of the characters. Despite this, for the most part Healy’s style is delicate and clear, and the artistic style deftly crafts the desolation both without and within.

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That this book is a beautiful object in and of itself is hardly surprising given it was published by Nobrow. Their catalogue is a treasure trove of stunning editions and How to Survive in the North is no exception. Their new paperback edition was released in May, after the success of the hardback release last year. Healy’s illustrations are sumptuously colourful, and strike a fine balance between careful detail and striking simplicity. A particular delight are the book's occasional large panels, used to set the scene and give a broader view of the landscape. Healy’s storytelling uses sparse and simple text, and allowing the illustrations to carry the narrative. Although there is a lot of intercutting between the three stories, his use of differing colour palettes to distinguish them from each other means they don’t become muddled for the reader. Overall, How to Survive in the North is a quiet yet powerful look at the human spirit. As impressive as the daring heroics of Bartlett and Blackjack are, the real triumph is in the quiet self-sacrificing spirit that stands behind their actions. Healy’s book is joy to read, to reflect on, and to dip back into on a cold and windy day.

Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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