Book Review: Labyrinth of Ice, by Buddy Levy

In Labyrinth of Ice, Buddy Levy writes about the Greely (1881-1884) Arctic expedition that starts with so much promise, but in the end goes horribly wrong. Commander Greely and his band of mostly military men set out to travel to the “farthest north,”, and while they do make it, the return brings about much peril.

In modern times, it is hard to imagine being so disconnected from civilization that one has to depend on only those around him, but this was of course the case during the Greely expedition. In fact, the only way they could transmit messages between themselves and those that might try to rescue them was by leaving them in cans whenever one of the ships managed to reach a location where it might be retrieved. From there, they had to hope.

The book strikes a very hopeful, excited tone for most of its first half. The men, and they were all men on this trip, enjoy forays into icy waters, play games and celebrate holidays at a fort they have constructed near the coast of Greenland. They have plenty of food and resources to go around, and make judicious use of them. Some wrinkles do appear while they are at base though, most notably rebellions among the leadership.

The real trouble starts once they decide to set off from the fort in the hopes of locating a relief vessel that will sail them back south. Food and tempers are shortened, and, well lives are lost. As in most true disaster stories, the reader gets a sense of the men’s deep despair, and wonders when or if they will be saved.

As the exhibition rolls along, we particularly see a change in Greely’s leadership from a more authoritarian style to one that is more democratic, which has a big positive effect on morale. There are also changes in other characters, for instance an initially discharged lieutenant who shows such great leadership skills in the end, and missed the last ship out when he was to have been sent home, that he is reinstated. In the character portrayals, we experience how many of us might have reacted under such harsh conditions, even as we ponder the wisdom of having placed oneself there.

This is a usual American exploration story, in that it celebrates what some might see as White men’s exploitation of the land and absorption of the locals. The Greenlanders who participate are given what might nowadays be considered offensive nicknames such as “Eskimo Fred,” but in the end they are treated fairly well and become an important part of the overall story. Some of the feelings of exploitation no doubt also arise from the fact that many of these men were of military origin, and relied heavily on their ranks and their desire to establish pride in the USA.

On the whole, Labyrinth is an enthralling story with which the reader, if consuming during this time of Covid, can strongly identify. It actually helps one to ponder how to cope with extreme isolation and the sadness that can result from being out of contact with family and friends for an extended period. Probably the rushed ending, wherein Greely’s other accomplishments are laid out, could have been excluded. But give it a go anyway, and you might come away with a little more appreciation of life’s fragility and why it must be protected.

The Caged Bird, and Other Reflections

I’m guessing by now that you know of the passing of Maya Angelou, one of the gratest and most inspiring writers/poets of all time. It’s funny, but to me she seemed like one who could go on and on for many more years. She certainly didn’t sound different in the last NPR interview I heard with her, though I grant that happened over a year ago. In any event, I guess all of our stories must at some point come to its end.

In an attempt to learn more about her, I read the first of her autobiographies entitled I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It’s a powerful story, with the feel of fiction but accompanied by the heavy weight of many injustices. We watch as she navigates and tries to learn the confusing roles of “black person” and “female” in the deep south.

On the former, this is one of the first books that really got me to understand a bit of why there was, and sadly still is in some cases, so much mistrust between individuals of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. Maya, (real name Marguerite) and her brother Bailey to whom she was very close, are called all sorts of names by the few whites that visit them. They also are forced to watch as some of the visitors attempt to disrespect their grandmother, because social norms dictate that she can do little or nothing about this treatment.

Meanwhile, they also grow up seeing white people as not human, primarily due to the infrequent and charged interactions among and between them. I find this very sad on all counts, and hope that we as members of this great but sometimes misled species jostle to survive and thrive on this planet.

As to the latter role of female, I’m sure most have heard the part of the story where she stops talking after having been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently killed by the family. She feels as if she has caused this killing by what she uttered, and thus refuses to talk with anyone but her brother for a long time.

This event was definitely awful, but what makes it worse for the reader is that Angelou manages to view it through childlike eyes again: not really able to understand what is happening or its meaning.

I think it is her ability to assume this perspective that makes her entire bio more poignant. If you’ve not read it, I’d recommend. For along with the sadness, there are rather humorous stories speckled in. It also gave me much to reflect on regarding my own life and its happenings.

It especially gave me cause to recall my own project on the lives and societal standing of African American males that I completed as a Ronald E. McNair Summer Research Internship Scholar. This program was created to honor Dr. McNair, one of the astronauts who lost his life in the Challenger explosion, and I believe the first black astronaut. Its aim was to improve the attendance rates of graduate school for minority/underrepresented students. I still remember that summer of 2001 as being one of the best I’ve ever experienced, especially from a social standpoint.

As I benefited both academically and financially from that program, I’m still hoping to, if not attend grad school, find some way to carry out enough of its mission to be more successful than I currently am. I’m wondering if, by extension, it might work for me to advise others on a college campus on how to strengthen their good points and maybe avoid pitfalls. It’s definitely something about which I’ve thought for years.

RELATED: Thinking of Attending Grad School? Some Advice

I know it isn’t the only path to such a career or maybe even the one I’ll end up taking, but one of my Twitter followers suggested I look into a master’s-level program in Student Affairs at the University of South Florida. From what I’ve seen of that program, it looks pretty good. They take seriously placing individuals who complete it, requiring also that one work while studying the theories and other classroom stuff. So I’d feel pretty confident about my chances upon completing it.

I think the primary issue here is that I need to somehow make sure that I’m cut out for this sort of thing. Perhaps the most feasible way to do this would be to mentor an incoming first-year student and just see how well I can make suggestions that might actually be helpful. I would also like to get a taste of my potential leadership skills.

So I think this is one of the reasons I keep reading these days, looking for that one piece of information that will set me on the right path. Does such a thing even exist? I intend to keep trying to find out.