The sea captain who found my father’s notebook frozen into the side of Little Iceland came all the way to northern Idaho to hand-deliver it to my mother.… It was stuffed inside a specimen jar, stoppered, carefully sealed with wax. The pages were in perfect condition, she pointed out, the words only a little smudged here and there.
The sea captain nodded. The balloon could have landed anywhere, he said, sunk anywhere. The water would have carried the party’s belongings miles from where they died. With time, their bodies would have been dispersed in this way as well.
Or, my mother said, he could have deliberately thrown it overboard. A clue, she called it, as though the whole thing – my father, the balloon, the years of waiting, all of it – was no more than a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Every love story begins with a discovery: amidst the ordinary, the sublime.
In his Introduction, TC Boyle refers to some of these stories as “Very long stories”: not necessarily in terms of page length, but in terms of what is encompassed within them. In those terms, I felt “North” was one of the longest.
In terms of the historical grounding of the tale, I’m reminded of Colum McCann’s excerpt “Transatlantic” or of Naomi Williams’ recent novel Landfalls. All recount factual events from fictionalized settings. “North” is far more fictionalized than the other two yet is rooted the ill-fated Arctic adventure of Swedish balloonist S. A. Andrée, whose story Sloss read after her own pregnancy. But whereas Andrée never married, Sloss’ fictional balloonist did (or at least, as much as did), and this story becomes a merging of two adventures.
What he is leaving behind is no different than what he is leaving for, she will tell him. A truth stranger than any magic: inside her is the wildest land.
In her youth, Mary was considered a “wild woman,” and her family was concerned that she was unsuitable for any man. Her mother knew, though: she would find a wild man. In this way, we get a clue about where Mary’s wildness comes from. Not that her mother was wild; she would’ve stayed in Virginia all her life, had her preacher husband not dragged her to North Dakota. But somehow, I think there was a longing for wild in her, and this is what she gave her daughter Mary.
The voice is beautiful and lyric, a joy to read (there’s a subtle erotic scene that knocks me out), but what I appreciated more than anything is equality implied in the highly lauded exploits of adventurous men, and the glossed-over achievements of women who bear and raise children – particularly those who raise children alone once their adventurous men have crashed on unknown shores.
I love Sloss’ choice of narrator: the couple’s child, who may be narrating from a time shortly after the notebook was discovered, or, given the sophistication of the voice, years later, after many secrets have been shared. Very little is certain in this story; we are given broad strokes, and allowed to color the details ourselves. Through this narrator-child, the offspring of both adventurers, we hear a generational saga, not so much of the people but of individual hearts. This gives a personal stake in the telling beyond that which a 3rd person narrator would have, yet has enough distance from the two characters to allow for observation, balancing objective and subjective.
I am born at noon the next day. My mother tells me this is the first thing she did: she checked the clock. I am still attached to her when she looks. We are not yet two when she begins to keep track of me, the seconds I have been alive and then, after she cuts through the cord herself, cleaving my body from hers with a kitchen knife, the seconds I have been on my own.
This is what women do, she says.
By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity.
And through this child – I’d assumed from the voice she was a young woman, but perhaps, given that last line, he is a young man; the balance of sympathies could go either way – we glimpse the next in the line of wild, and the impossibility of the mother’s task: to love enough to say goodbye.