Just reading the blurb about Robyn Mundy is like reading an adventure story. Her first novel, The Nature of Ice, was shaped by winters and summers spent in Antarctica. Her second novel, Wildlight, is set on an island that is home to Australia’s loneliest lighthouse. Cold Coast is influenced by working for over twenty years as a ship-based tour guide in Svalbard, Greenland.
Cold coast is the story of an intrepid woman who yearned to experience the freedom and beauty of the trapper’s life in the high Arctic. The book draws from the diaries of Ivanna (Wanny) Waldstad, a woman whose determination resulted in Anders (Chief) Saeterdal taking her on as a working partner in his team of two in the 1930s.
Mundy lays bare the masculine world of the trappers. You can hear them, see them and smell them. At the end of each season they meet in men-only bars to swap stories of their conquests and to find a partner for the following season. There are no debates about whether trapping is right or wrong until the end of the book, where twenty years after her first season together, Wanny is confronted by animal activists.
‘Animal rights? The Chief would laugh aloud at the notion of a wild animal having entitlement, having value beyond the price it fetched. He and she never entertained such indulgence. A time of simple needs, she has written in her letter. We depended on ourselves and we got on with it, made do with what we had.’
Mundy fearlessly and appropriately reports true to the approach to trapping of the 1930s. To have tampered with the prevailing views would have dishonoured the protagonist – and the writer – and undermined the beauty of the story.
Despite her determination to work hard and skilfully at everything a male partner would contribute, Wanny is always and every inch a woman. Mundy is uncompromising in the picture of Wanny’s life in the wild. There is no softening of her experiences to make them more palatable. Neither is there exaggeration to make them sensational. You watch her growing thinner, hands calloused, nails shredded. You share her revulsion at the smell of animals opened end to end with a sharp knife. You want to stand with her when she walks out of the hut into the wide sky and drinks in the wonder of the landscape.
Rare man-made constructions sit without confidence in the majestic landscape. Foxes spray huge crosses left behind by Russian Orthodox Pomors as they pass. Huts, built to make human habitation possible, are raided by bears. There is no doubt where control lies, and it is not with man or woman.
This is also the story of a female blue fox cub, the runt of the litter, who learns fast how to cope when thrown out by her parents, where to find the meat on which she will opportunistically gorge until it hurts, and how to walk the thin line between wary avoidance of the hunters and accepting titbits of food before they are ready to trap her. Little Blue, as she’s named, lives a life parallel to Wanny. She learns to adapt and survive. She learns how to avoid risk. And she seeks a partner to share her future.
The language of the book is taut and lean, the perfect vehicle to conjure the trapper’s world of ice and risk and aching beauty.
‘Beyond the finger of land an ice tongue pushes out across the water. Inland is a patchwork of crater rims, knife-edge ridges, pointed mountains too numerous to count, each broad valley filled with a river of ice. It is not simply the sight of all this wonder that has her turn to look again; it is the need to place herself solidly within in. People see her as a woman of small stature but out in nature she has always felt tall, made bigger and stronger by breathing in the mountains of home. Yet here she is as small as a saxifrage flower….All the stories the trappers tell; none can fully prepare you.’
‘She shakes off the racing in her chest. Why should this one matter? She is immune to every white fox she pulls from the fall traps. She is held by a fug that eddies through her gut, seesaws into numbness. This is just another fox caught in a trap. Another to bolster their numbers. Their reason for being here. But her body will not be placated. Her skin prickles. Her hands fumble, all nerves and jitters. Why? Why Ivanna? Because you are too soft to be a trapper.’
I experienced a chill wind throughout the reading, at times thinking to find a coat and gloves despite the Clare Valley sun on the mild spring day outside my window. I read this book in one sitting, but I will reflect on it for much longer.