Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness

by Colleen Mondor

McCaughrean knows though that this Oates is her twist on the myth and through her research for the book came to a very different conclusion about the man himself. ". . .thegenuine article would not have been at all easy to get along with. A serious sociopath. He was either fooling about like an overgrown schoolboy or sulking or simply keeping shtum. I doubt he would ever have exchanged a civil word with Sym Wates in real life."

But it wasn’t the real Oates that Sym needed anyway, her ideal was enough; her ideal was everything.

Sym’s conversations with her interior Oates do follow the true representation of who Oates (and in fact most of his fellow explorers) was. In his recent masterful biography, Scott of the Antarctic: A life of Courage and Tragedy, David Crane deconstructs the specific myths and legends that have arisen in the near century since the doomed journey.His focus is primarily on Scott and the many events in his life and earlier polar expedition that contributed to his catastrophic decisions on the race against Amundsen. But Crane is clear that the acceptance of Scott’s choices by his crew — the adherence to his will and continuing admiration of his character — are just as key as the decisions themselvesto understanding the tragedy. In the great sprawling epic that was Scott’s life, his disappointing father, dependent mother and siblings, strict navy career and deep streak of independent thinking that the first polar journey instilled, Crane finds multiple reasons to explain why the last expedition included one more man then Scott had planned and provisioned for,why his provisions were inadequate in any event, and why the supply depots were inappropriately placed and stocked. None of this was done due to Scott’s inexperience or command failures; he just had an almost unreasonable faith in his ability to accomplish his goal. In his public appeal for funds for the expedition he wrote, that the main objectivewas ". . .to reach the South Pole, and to secure for The British Empire the honour of this achievement." Scott was going to get to the Pole first for King and country regardless of any single thing that might seem to make it impossible and Oates and the rest of the group were determined to do everything they could to help him achieve that goal.

None of them believed it wouldn’t succeed because failure was unacceptable and even as they were dying they praised Scott; they praised everything he did and worried most of all that they hadn’t succeeded for him.

They were dedicated Englishmen of their age until the end but in modern times, after the hollow earth idea proves to be as bizarre as it sounds (big surprise) and Uncle Victor really goes around the bend (totally), Sym is left utterly alone in a place where she seems destined to die. At that darkest moment, she finds herself questioning just who Oates actually was,beyond the myths that surround him, and whether or not his decision to die for his friends — and their decision to let him — was the right thing for all of them to do.

People are always expecting things of him. Wanting him to have been perfect. Wanting him to have been braver than they ever could be. I won’t impose. I wouldn’t have let him go outside in the first place.

Listen to me, Sym. I got it wrong. I should have walked out earlier. Then my dying might have made a difference. Five days earlier, and it might have made a difference. Five days when the others could have eaten my rations! Five days less of marching at the pace of a man crippled in both legs. Each morning it took me three hours to put on my boots — threehours when the others could have been pressing on! Five days earlier and the last blizzard might not have pinned them down. Five days earlier and they might have made it to One Ton! But I funked it. I didn’t want to die alone. God knows, I wanted to be dead, but I didn’t know how to commit suicide without a gun. They refused to leave me behind in my sleeping bag thoughI begged them. . . .My hands were gone. I couldn’t even take the coward’s way out. My hands were gone, girl, so I couldn’t get the morphine out of my pocket. So I waited and I hoped to die, but I didn’t and I didn’t, because. . .because — who knows why? Because I was made so deep–down, ingrained stubborn — or because I was so damnedfit to begin with — or because the pain hadn’t finished with me.’

Poor Titus. He doesn’t understand. It’s not dying or bravery or The Ice that makes him wonderful — indispensable. It’s not the dagger of ice in his heart but the sliver of India’s sunshine. It’s being lousy at spelling and crying for joy when his horse won a race, and thinking he could sail a yacht because his grandfather was an admiral, and chasing his own motorbike downa mud–baked road, and keeping a deer in the coal store. . .It’s the color of his eyes and the silken rope of his voice. It’s being thirty–two and beautiful as a dog moon. . .He shouldn’t have gone outside. Young men ought to be left to grow old. Friends ought to stay together. I would have made him stay out of pure selfishness — because Icouldn’t have brought myself to part with him. I would have let him stay and be afraid like ordinary people are. Like me."

While many scholars might wonder if Oates actually said the famous last words that Scott credited to him (Crane sees no reason to doubt), it is only in McCaughrean’s fiction that anyone feels sorry for Oates and what he felt he had to do. This is how she manages to connect a 21st century teenager to a long dead explorer and make that connection believable. McCaughrean taps into whatthey ultimately both had in common: a longing for home.

"I could sleep here," Sym thinks, falling for the illusion of peacefulness. "Like him. I could do that. Look. Even without meaning to, I’ve lain down full–length. Falling snow has obscured my ski suit already. I look as if I’m dissolving into the ground. ‘I’ll just stay here, Titus. Your body’s here somewhere. It’s a good place to be.’"

But Sym is wrong about that — about what happened to Oates in death.

" ‘THE ICE SHELF IS MOVING, YOU FOOL!’ shouts Titus. ‘The surface is moving! All the time! New stuff welling up in the center, pushing the old ice outward! Only a few miles a year but never stopping — on and on and on! Carrying everything with it: Bill and Birdie and the Owner wrapped in their tent. Taffy Evans under his cairn: all carried along inside a river ofice — all the time sinking lower, like dead fish. Sinking through the ice, the saltwater gnawing the ice from under them!‘ He is shrieking now — so loudly that it pains my eardrums and makes me screw up my face, splitting my lips, leaking warm blood into my mouth. ‘In the end the Shelf ships everything into the sea! To wash about in the sea! Lawrence Oates hasn’t been in Antarctica for years, Sym!Twenty years ago his body dropped out of the bottom of the ice shelf and into the sea! OATES IS GONE! His body was food for the leopard seas and crabs!

And then, finally, Sym is done falling prey to the whims of others — done being victimized by her father, her uncle and all those kids at school who never took a moment to really know her. Oates has finally made it through. "I don’t want to be in this frigid bitch of a place!" she cries, "I don’t want to be in a dead place that doesn’t even want my dead body!" McCaughrean has thus found the perfectway to blend myth and reality. Oates, the man about whom Crane writes that "With the possible exception of Scott himself there is no one in polar history so wholly obscured by legend as ‘the Soldier. . .’" has proven to be exactly whom Sym needed all along. He is there beside her, "carrying the pain" and more than anything that is what she has always needed; it is what so many teenage readers in particular desperately need. ". . .he makes Symfeel good about herself because he introduces her to her best qualities," explains McCaughrean. And so she triumphs over all of them, over everything, even, unlike Titus Oates, over Antarctica itself.

In his final analysis, David Crane writes that Scott, Oates and their three other companions were ". . .quite literally, killed by the cold. . ." But interestingly enough, it was not so much their mission or their deaths that made them legends, ". . .it was only through his journals and letters that Scott achieved the posthumous dominance over people’s minds that he never did alive.It is easy enough to argue that the Scott of ‘myth’ bore only a passing resemblance to the living man, but the more central truth is that it was only in his written legacy that the values to which he aspired stood shorn of those accidents of character and temper that always came between him and his ideals."

A similar case could be made for Oates both in the letters and journals he left behind and even more importantly in the way that Scott recorded his actions those last few days. Regardless of his envious ability and tragic mistakes as an explorer, Scott found his literary calling when he created his compelling history for those five lost men in Antarctica and Geraldine McCaughrean recognized the real strength behind the memory Scott gave the British public. She saw who Lawrence Oateswas beneath the weight of his final words and she gave him the story of Sym and her struggle for survival as a gift. McCaughrean has set Oates free of Robert Scott with her book; she has made him a singular hero for a new generation of readers. The White Darkness is a young adult thriller about a teenage girl fighting for her life in one of the planet’s last alien landscapes but it is also the story of a man long dead. Finally, Titus Oates is able to speak for himselfand the story he and Sym tell about what survival is really all about is amazing.

About the author:
Colleen Mondor grew up in Florida, spent ten years braving the cold in Alaska, andnow lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest. She is the YA columnist for the monthly online literarymagazine Bookslut and also canbe found reviewing for the ALA’s Booklist, Eclectica Magazine and theVoices of New Orleans. She has had essays published on baseball, airplanes, and music and is currently trying to be patient as her agentshops around her novel on Alaska aviation. You can find out more at personal site, Chasing Ray.

About the artist:
Born and raised in Brooklyn, James Graham studied theater at the High School of the Performing Arts, graduating in 1979. After ten years of professional success but artistic frustration in the restaurant business, he enrolled at the City Technical College of the City University of New York, and then went on to study photography at the University of Arizona, where he was awarded the Kodak scholarship. He was one of the founders the Toole Shed Studios Co–operative in Tucson, Arizona, as well as a founder of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. James and his wife have lived and worked in Los Angeles since 2001.To see more of his work, please visit his website.

Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Mondor. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission. Photographs copyright © by James Graham and may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the artist.