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South Pole Station

Review

South Pole Station

It was a pretty smart decision on the part of Picador to release Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, SOUTH POLE STATION, at the height of summer, just when readers sweltering on beaches and in un-air-conditioned apartments start to feel the teensiest bit nostalgic for snow and ice. This book transports them deep into one of the remotest places on the planet --- and into the recognition that philosophical conflicts and past demons can never be truly escaped.

Cooper Gosling has always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Antarctica. Her dad is the type of man whose only reading material consists of books written by and about polar explorers. Cooper’s brother, David, shared their father’s fascination with polar exploration --- right up until his diagnosis with schizophrenia and eventual suicide. Still grieving David’s death, Cooper, who is a visual artist, decides to apply for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

"Shelby, whose previous book was a nonfiction study of a 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, writes about technical topics and geographical setting with confidence and compelling detail."

Despite a number of red flags in her psychological evaluation (including her admission that she recently lost a close relative to suicide), Cooper is selected to participate in the program, and soon has undergone training to spend an entire summer season at the South Pole Station. Cooper quickly discovers that even this remote quasi-civilization has its own tribes; there are the Beakers (scientists) and the Nailheads (maintenance staff), who share a mutual disdain for one another’s work. As for the artists and writers, the rest of the Polies couldn’t care less if a great biography or historical novel or interpretive dance grows out of their time at Pole.

As Cooper navigates this complicated social system (which is explicated by Pole’s resident sociologist and Cooper’s office mate), she finds herself struggling to find both her place within it and her own means of articulating her polar experience through art --- since that’s (ostensibly) why she’s there in the first place.

SOUTH POLE STATION takes place during the George W. Bush administration, and one of the central conflicts arises when a climate change denier arrives at South Pole Station to perform research in support of his views. The other scientists --- many of whom are climate researchers --- detest him, but Cooper finds herself intrigued by his outsider status, even though their friendship might jeopardize her social standing at the station and, ultimately, even her livelihood.

Chapters focusing on Cooper’s time at the South Pole are interspersed with those outlining other characters’ backstories and the reasons --- both personal and professional --- that they found themselves in this most surprising location. Shelby, whose previous book was a nonfiction study of a 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, writes about technical topics and geographical setting with confidence and compelling detail. As Cooper strives to find her own way while straining to understand David’s death, she enters into numerous debates about climate change, the nature of scientific integrity, the function of belief (in God or in science), and the different ways in which scientists and artists pursue truth.

All of this might sound heavy, but don’t worry --- SOUTH POLE STATION also includes the absurdity and humor befitting its eccentric and appealingly unorthodox cast of characters.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 7, 2017

South Pole Station
by Ashley Shelby

  • Publication Date: July 3, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250112826
  • ISBN-13: 9781250112828