Polar Bear

from The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish

Reviews for The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish

Starred review: The Five Owls, March/April 2001
Inherent in people, especially children, is a fascination with survival, particularly on the "desert island" of life, in childhood, as witnessed by the popularity of Robinson Crusoe. Many fictional survival stories have been written with imagined details meant to ring true, but without the verisimilitude of Crusoe. The Lamp, the Ice,and the Boat Called Fish is a true survival story--a unique, memorable, Robinsonnade tale.

Based on research which she documents, the author tells a survival story of a shipwrecked crew, along with the scientists, explorers, Inupiaq hunters, an Inupiaq family, forty sled dogs, and a cat all of whom were also aboard the ship Karluk, in Alaska in the early nineteenth century. They all manage to subsist, ice-bound, on the boat until it is destroyed by the ice and sinks. The fleeing survivors create short-term shelter on the ice and then finally make a pilgrimage to a far flung island for help.

The richness of the text is in the details. The author knows the cultural artifacts and rituals of the Inupiaq people and graces the text with native terms and even pronunciations along the way. The story is told somewhat from the perspective of the Inupiaq family. She stresses certain images: the seal oil lamp, the fur clothing, the hunt for food, the making of clothing that can withstand the cold. She shows the life of the shipwrecked survivors as both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader learns about who these people were and what they did. They become living history. The book is divided into small chapters each introduced with a bit of natural lore related to the icy sea.

The illustrations by Beth Krommes are stunning scratchboard art that capture the spirit of the Inupiaq culture. A mystical sense resounds in the landscape and inscapes. She is able to communicate the mounds of ice on which they traversed and settled in a way I never imagined before. Her domestic scenes are tender indeed with delicate details like the lyrics to the native's song: "the land, the wide sky, the sound of the wind, the ptarmigan." Just imagine.
Ann Lundin
The New York Times Book Review, April 15, 2001
Jacqueline Briggs Martin, the author of the picture biography Snowflake Bentley, brings a historian's sensibility and sharply honed storytelling skills to this compelling Arctic survival tale that rivals the better-known Endurance shipwreck for lessons in courage and fortitude.

Based on events that occurred in 1913, the story centers on an Inupiaq Eskimo family--including two young daughters--invited by the leader of a Canadian expedition to join the crew of the ship Karluk (Aleutian for fish). The skills they bring (the father's hunting prowess and mother's ability to make warm clothing from caribou and sealskin in particular) serve the group well when the Karluk is icebound and eventually sinks, forcing them to abandon ship and make the treacherous journey to land on foot. There they endure a long, hungry summer before they are finally rescued.

Martin carefully tailors the dramatic story to young readers, piquing interest with such details as the ship's cat, who is carried off the sinking ship and nurtured through the ordeal. The text begins and ends with lyrical passages that tell of a song ("the song of the land, the wide sky, the sound of the wind, the ptarmigan") and a seal oil lamp bequeathed to the eldest daughter by her grandmother to remind her of home; the story--enough text so that it is really a chapter book in picture book clothing--is spiced with Inupiaq words and bolstered by careful research.

Beth Krommes's exquisite scratchboard artwork has the textured look of old woodcuts, and is rendered in a subtle, naturalistic palette of black and white, shaded with hues of ochre and soft moss green. The images are memorable, from the sturdy, plump-cheeked children and abundant wildlife to the stark hummocks of sea ice the group must cross to safety; the ship's cat is cleverly used as a recurrent visual motif. A passenger list and historical photographs form an intriguing afterword, while a particularly attractive layout floats artwork and chunks of free-form text on generous floes of white space, lending the book, appropriately enough, the look of an epic poem.
Heather Vogel Frederick