Blair Braverman and Queen
When Blair Braverman and I finally managed to get each other on the phone to talk about her new book Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube
, she was huddled in a stairway, the quietest place she could find at O'Hare, just a short while before her flight to Anchorage, where she was scheduled to pick up her sled dogs, nine puppies and four adult huskies, and then drive them home to northern Wisconsin.
This bit is relevant because Braverman will be bringing the dogs—puppies and all—to her readings at Volumes Bookcafe and Women & Children First next week. The puppies will be available for cuddling; they usually fall asleep when someone holds them.
During our conversation, Braverman invited me to drive across the Yukon with her and the dogs. We'd never met—we'd only exchanged a few e-mails—but she said that some of the best adventures of her life have happened on spontaneous road trips with complete strangers. This I believed. I'd spent most of the past few days in my apartment, huddled near the air conditioner, reading Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube
and reflecting on how boring my life has been. If there hadn't been some difficult obstacles—like the cost of a last-minute, one-way flight to Alaska—I would've done it. Braverman makes a life of adventure sound like the only kind worth living.
The book was originally intended to be an adventure story about two college summers when Braverman worked on a glacier in southeast Alaska, where she led dogsled tours: "the goddamn ice cube" was the guides' private nickname for the glacier. "I wanted to show the messy, dirty Alaska," she says. There was a fair amount of adventure—sleeping in tents on the ice, getting lost and snowed in—and also misogyny and sexual harassment and sexual violence, and Braverman spent much of her time trying to prove what a tough girl she was. She'd originally planned to leave the parts about her own troubles out, but after she started writing, she realized that left her with a terrible and boring book. "Readers can tell when they're not being told the whole story," she says.
In order to make the story feel more true, Braverman realized she had to go back and explain the origins of her love of the arctic and why she needed to prove she was a tough girl in the first place. The answers to both those questions were in Norway, where Braverman first visited as a ten-year-old, spending a year living abroad with her parents. Their home was Davis, California: hot, dry, and uninspiring. "I spent my whole childhood knowing that my real home was yet to come," Braverman writes. And then, upon arriving in Oslo, "just like that, I had a place to love."
Braverman spent another year in Norway, this time in Lillehammer, as a high school exchange student. Her relationship with her host father was unsettling: he was angry and controlling, and violence was always just below the surface, but she was never able to articulate what was wrong. "It was a shitty situation," she says now. "I didn't trust my own experience. I couldn't put it into words. The book is, in part, writing to myself about how to trust my own instincts. My challenge was to trust the truth, even when things didn't make sense."
But instead of fleeing the north, Braverman decided to embrace it. She had her difficult summers in Alaska. But she also had her time in Mortenhals—a tiny town on the Norwegian Sea so far north that Sweden and Finland are south—where she originally visited to learn how to dogsled. (It's so small and the region is so sparsely populated that when her partner comes to visit, he's able to find her by asking everyone within a two-hour radius, "Where is Blair?") It also brought her to Arild, the storekeeper who becomes one of her dearest friends.
Much of the book takes place in Mortenhals, where Braverman spends several months converting an old store into a museum and, more importantly, listening to Arild and the other men who hang out in his store. Some of them are unsettling, but she learns how to face her fear and set limits and survive as a young woman in an inhospitable landscape dominated by men. None of them quite understood why she was writing a book about them, but they didn't mind that she recorded most of their conversations. (At times, they even grabbed her notebook to correct her Norwegian spelling.)
"They all felt bad for me," Braverman says. "They thought it was a book about an incredibly boring place that no one would read. I was so in love with that place, even with all the messiness, but I was lonely in loving it. I want other people to love it too."
Braverman is aware of the controversy over memoirs, particularly those by young women who, some essayists have argued
, are encouraged to emphasize various traumas in their lives. "I was wary of writing a traumoir," she says. "I used a journalistic process. I did a lot of interviewing and transcribing conversations about the village, and history and psychology. I was always seeking things out. I never had a sense of just sitting in a chair."
Braverman grew up reading stories of the north and envying the characters in Gary Paulsen's survival-in-the-wilderness books—but while she was writing her own book she read and reread Random Family
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo, two books of journalism that are so deeply reported they read like novels. She compares the daily readings to tuning an instrument, a way to refine her own prose. Though sometimes the book reads less like a nonfiction novel and more like fantasy, particularly the parts where Braverman describes learning to build ice caves in the wilderness, where ten below is a nice temperature: How can anyone be happy not feeling their feet for three days? It seems like one of those trials young sorcerers are always having to endure.
But back to the dogs. Now that Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube
is out in the world (Arild received the first copy and made sure everyone else in Mortenhals read it as well), Braverman is busy training for the Iditarod and looking for a subject for her next book. She's thinking about end-of-times preppers. If you know of any, you can tell her at the reading, after you pet the puppies.
Blair Braverman will be in conversation with Robert Moor at Volumes Bookcafe on Sun 8/7, 5:30 PM, and reading at Women & Children First on Thu 8/11, 7:30 PM.