Before we begin, grab a map. Preferably the paper kind; the old atlas that's been on your shelf for years or the AAA guidebooks your grandmother gave to you. Google Maps will do, in a pinch.
Flip to Alaska. Now look up—up, up, higher up. Do you see Barter Island? Between Barrow (the farthest North American City) and the Canadian border, it sits near the mouth of the several meandering rivers. That is where we are headed.
The journey begins in Kaktovik, Alaska. Perched at the northeastern tip of the state, Kaktovik is the jumping-off point for adventurers rafting down the Hulahula River. It is well within the Arctic Circle, a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for a June river trip, perfect for spotting Dall Sheep and musk ox against the Brooks Range Mountains.
Shannon Huffman Polson is in Kaktovik with her adopted brother Ned and his colleague Sally, preparing to retrace the trip taken a year earlier by her father and stepmother. It will be both tribute and quest: Richard and Kathy Huffman were killed by a grizzly bear before they could finish their expedition.
Polson has returned for "a journey over the jagged edge of loss." Her maps, like ours, can only get her so far. The rest of the way will require courage and commitment over rocky terrain.
"I lived for his attention," Polson writes about her father in North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey. Polson's parents divorced when she was twelve years old, a move that shattered her life and those of her two brothers. Her father remarried several years later and Polson fought Kathy for his time and attention. Above all else, this is a book about fathers and daughters: the trappings of that relationship, the desperate wanting for approval, the silent competition with a new wife.
Pilgrims of the Depths
By any standards, Polson's achievements are remarkable: A BA in English literature from Duke, an MBA from Dartmouth's Tuck School, membership in the first group of female attack pilots the Army had ever deployed. But against the backdrop of her relationship with her father, we wonder how much she embarked on the Alaskan voyage for herself and how much for him, or some combination of the two.
Polson's narration is violently beautiful, from capturing the wild splendor of Arctic Alaska to asking questions required by pain: "Pain too much to handle also comes with exquisite beauty, as common as dirt, as unexpected as grace. Are we meant to be pilgrims of the depths?"
Polson undertakes this journey—the revisiting of the trip on which her father and stepmother died, as well as the telling of the story—as both catharsis and means of understanding. She navigates grief with characteristic boldness. She does not pity herself, although she makes concessions: "There was a time when I thought I would be happy if I died," she writes. "In these Arctic mountains…I wanted to suffer. I wanted to live, so that I could suffer, believing that if I was hurting more, I was somehow closer to Dad and Kathy…I wanted that pain." There are no easy answers here, no pat Christian responses about the deceased being in a better place. Polson makes us read between the lines, looking for God in the middle of tragedy just as she has, walking the crooked path that healing takes.
Before setting off on her Alaskan journey, a love of singing had propelled Polson to audition to sing Mozart's Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony. She knew she needed to require something of herself as a condition of her grief. "I do not know if song came before prayer, or prayer before song, but I do know that together they are magnified and soar as they cannot do alone." The words of the requiem are gorgeous and haunting, and as Polson recounts her travels along the Hulahula, they serve as a constant refrain: Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. ("Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.") In the boat, the place where she must cling to new mercies for safety and sanity, those words take on new meaning.
Raised in a Christian household, Polson returns to her Episcopal roots after her father's death. The familiarity of the liturgy and rhythm draw her back, even after years spent in a Presbyterian church in grad school. She needs what she knows, and she needs the God of grief that cheerful evangelicals can be quick to skip over.
When Polson arrives at the beach where her father and stepmother were camping when they died, she "knelt with the Good Friday God, the suffering God who had wept and bled, cried out and died. The Easter God—that was who I'd been trying to talk to, but I wasn't ready." She needed to mourn her father with the God who mourned, grieve with the God who grieved.
The Way of the Brave
Our maps will take us where we want to go, but it is God who takes us to the places we dare not tread. Polson is unrelentingly brave—physically, certainly, which is to be expected from one of the first female attack pilots in Army history. But she is brave, too, in the excavation of her soul that North of Hope lays bare. Traversing the topography of anguish and loss with her, we learn the way to be brave is often no more than to sit with our pain, to know it as part of God's world that we must tend to, to never run in a direction that takes us away from God.
North of Hope is like an Impressionist painting—it is woven together not by chronology or theme but by feel, and like a good painting it requires attention at every turn. Like the journey she retraces in the book, Polson takes the reader on a journey through topics as disparate as Northern Alaska's flora and fauna, childhood after divorce, the implosive effect of bottled-up rage, and the healing powers of Mozart. North of Hope requires patience from the reader because its subject matter is dizzyingly profound. Shannon Huffman Polson has written a memoir with more heartbreaking beauty in its 200-some pages than most of us could experience in a lifetime.
Laura Ortberg Turner is a writer in California, and a contributor to Her.meneutics. She blogs at www.loturner.com.