For a hundred days it is darkness. One hundred days without a breath of sun. Walls thick with frost. Storms so powerful, so ladened with snow, they must dig themselves out every ‘morning’. The only real sign the hut is even there is the stove pipe peeping out above the snow.
This is A Woman in the Polar Night. Written in the 1930s and republished in November 2019, Christiane Ritter bucks tradition, journeying north to join her husband for a year long stay on the tip of Svalbard Island, high above the arctic circle.
Hermann, her husband, is an experienced hunter and trapper, gathering furs to be sent south. He is joined by Karl, a Norwegian of the same profession and the three of them spend a year in a tiny two room shack.
It is not, initially, the idyllic contemplative vacation she imagined while preparing at her home in Austria. Yet despite a broken, soot spewing stove, large quantities of dark seal meat and an endless night sky, she yields to arctic life. While frank about her isolation and struggles in adapting to the forces of nature, she finds solace in the minute comings and goings of wildlife, or the effect a simple change of weather has on the mountains and tundra.
Ritter’s writing is reminiscent of John Muir, in its fluidity and beauty. She has an old love of nature, capturing the majesty, the bitter cold, painting a kaleidoscopic landscape with her words.
The result is an immersive, brutal, and otherworldly experience, especially in the darkest depths of winter.
A deeply enjoyable, and inspirational work of travel writing. Ritter is a pioneer, in both writing and exploration for women.
Reviewed by Kelsey Ward