I enjoyed moderating Cold Coast by Robyn Mundy.
Cold Coast is feminist historical fiction centred around Wanny Woldstad. She was born Ivanna Margrethe Ingvardsen in Sommaroy Norway in 1893. In 1932, Anders Saeterdal recruited her for a trapping expedition to the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. She was the first female trapper to go there. The novel reflects the values of the era where arctic fox and polar bear pelts were highly prized for fashionable coats and stoles.
Mundy’s account of Wanny’s life is factually accurate. Mundy relied heavily on Wanny’s memoir The First Woman Trapper in Svalbard.
The novel commences in July 1932. The male trappers are gathering in Tromso a coastal town within the arctic circle, in Northern Norway. They obtained loans to finance supplies to take them further north, for their hunting expeditions. Wanny, a widow, is earning her living running a taxi company. As the first woman proprietor, she already stood out in the town. She picks up Anders Saeterdal as he staggers out of a local bar. She knows he is looking for a partner to go hunting. She takes him to the field to show her superb shooting skills. He thinks she is recommending her husband. When he realises she is putting herself forward he argues that only wives have ever gone to Svalbard to keep house for their husbands, and even that is not always a success. What would people think of a non-married woman with him? She assures him. she is a widow and has no intention of entering into any relationship. He decides to take a chance and take her with him, much to the reticule of his fellow trappers.
And so, we see the two of them manage their relationship and some of the most extreme climates humans can injure.
For the next year, they live in trappers’ huts with basic facilities: a stove and bunk beds. Accompanied by three Alsatian dogs and rifles, they hunt for foxes for their winter coats. The white fox and the rarer black fox are known as blues. They also hunt for polar bear skins. Over the coming months, Wanny learns to become a trapper. Anders begrudgingly values her work. Eventually, they become lovers, but it is more from human need than any romantic inclination.
By the end of the year, they have caught 13 bears and 12 foxes. Even though Anders is pleased, it is clear he will take someone else for the next season. Wanny will not give up and decides to return the following year with her sons. She will teach them to become trappers.
In the epilogue, it is now 1959. As in real life, Mundy recounts, Wanny spent five seasons in Svalbard. In later life, she gave lectures about her time as a trapper and publishes a memoir. Times have changed, and animal furs are no longer fashionable. At a public talk, she is heckled. Did you not think about the mother and her cubs? She will not apologise for living as a tracker arguing the animals were just as wily as the hunters. She died in 1959 after being hit by a bus.
Each month of the trapping year heads up a chapter. These are alternated with chapters about wildlife on the glacier. We cover the life cycle of a vixen and the dog fox and their offspring. Other arctic animals include the seals, that provide food for Anders and Wanny, penguins, and, of course, polar bears. Mundy describes the birds—the kittiwake sand guillemots, whose eggs and chicks feed the young fox kits. The gulls screeching overhead. The grouse- like ptarmigans, used to bait the hunters’ traps.
Mundy has so many descriptive passages about the ice. She must have had personal experience. Indeed, she has. She first visited the Antarctic two decades ago and has returned on many occasions working as an assistant expedition leader for a Sydney-based eco-tour company. In the summer of 2003/4, she spent a season living and working at the Davis station as a field assistant. When she visited the Arctic, she travelled to Svalbard. There she came across the hut that Wanny stayed in Hornsund. She became fascinated with Wanny and began to research her story. In her downtime, she lives in Tasmania and teaches creative writing.
17 OBGers gathered to discuss Cold Coast. The majority enjoyed the book. We were struck by how unusual Wanny was. We reminded ourselves that this was the 1930s when women could not open their own bank accounts without their husband’s profession. Yet Wanny was running her own taxi business.
We enjoyed Mundy’s writing. By telling their story in the present tense, there was a sense of immediacy. As the chapters alternate between humans and the animals we felt the push and pull between the hunters and the hunted. Her descriptions of Wanny and Anders working and travelling across the frozen fjords were very evocative. We shivered in the cold.
The literary treatment of the animals was met with mixed opinions. Many found the descriptions, particularly of the birdlife, beautiful. We became attached to the story of Little Blue. Members admitted to reading the book fast as they wanted to find out what happened to her. We opined that it was a good device to move the plot forward However, for others, the anthropomorphising of the blue fox kit was senti0mental. Foxes are vicious and feral. To pretend otherwise was unrealistic. It detracted from the authenticity of life as a trapper.
We tried to imagine living in such close quarters for a year with another person. One member recalled her experience of tramping in the wilds of New Zealand where she took a break from her normal busy life. She noted that after a few days, the simplicity of walking with no distractions became a meditative experience. She wondered if it might have been similar for Wanny and Anders. Each day was about hunting and personal survival. Concentrating their minds on these primal tasks was a form of escapism. In the final, chapters they returned to Tromso. Like Wanny, we experienced the assault of the noises, colours, and smells of the town. These contrasted with the silence of the frozen fjord.
Many members found it confusing to pinpoint where the duo was located as they travelled around Svalbard. The maps in front of the book were regularly referred to.
We questioned the purpose of the expensive fur coat given to Wanny by the loan shark. Wanny never wore it. We wondered if the loan shark was telling Wanny that she now belongs to him. Was her rejection of it another symbol of her desire for independence?
We referenced The North Water, a BBC production recently shown on the ABC. It is a grim tale of the life of whalers in the 1850s. There is no sentimentality in the killing of whales and seals. It was set on Svalbard and so provides a visual reference to the landscape. It is available on iview.
The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath (OBG May 2013) was cited as a companion read. It recounts Inuits struggling to survive on Ellesmere Island beyond the Arctic Circle in far North Canada.
A fascinating book about a fascinating woman. Highly recommended.