Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'Following our Fathers' reviewed in Northwords

The current issue of Northwords, a marvellous journal, carried this interesting review of the new wee book:
Following Our Fathers –
Two Journeys among Mountains
by Linda Cracknell
Best Foot Books (www.lindacracknell.com)
Review by Stephen Keeler
Beginnings and endings are rarely clear-cut,
discrete or readily identifiable. Towards the
end of the first of the two accounts which
make up this heart-warming little treasure of
a book Cracknell suggests that she ‘set out on
this walk principally for a holiday’. It is clear
from the outset, however, not only that she
set out for rather more than a holiday but also
that she had ‘set out’ long before she arrived
in Norway to do it.
Cracknell’s first account, ‘Losing my footing,
finding my feet again’, is of her ‘walk’ in
the footsteps of Sven Sømme, a Norwegian
biologist arrested by the German forces occupying
his country in 1944 for photographing
a torpedo station near Åndalsnes. An activist
in the resistance movement, Sømme escaped
during transportation to the regional military
headquarters for summary trial, and headed
for neutral Sweden across Norway’s backbone
of high fells and towering alps. His compelling
and deeply personal account of the arduous
and hazardous trek was published in 2005, as
Another Man’s Shoes, and is Cracknell’s companion
guide, along with Sømme’s daughters
Ellie and Yuli, on a commemorative walk, sixty
years later, to ‘reinforce their father’s route’, to
create their own ‘pathways of personal meaning’,
and to ‘reclaim Norway as a country to
which [they] belonged’. Heady stuff, even for
readers not prone to vertigo.
Cracknell’s skill as a writer is to combine
the poetry and the prose without appearing
to have to try too hard. The hills may always
‘tremble with promise’ but they never cease to
be what Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘granite
underfoot’. The Norwegian west coast
evening ‘stretched out long and late with its
layering of blue-island silhouettes reminding
[her] of the Summer Isles’, but ‘the path crosses
a featureless plateau, and circles behind a small
hill, after which we descend back towards the
lake through rocky outcrops’. Unsurprising
that her desk and computer seem ‘remote
and irrelevant’, that she should contemplate,
in the silent sleeplessness of the high alpine
valley, not only the Sømmes’ genetic legacy
stretching back like the valley itself, but eventually
that of her own family. Just like Sven
Sømme, Cracknell’s father died of cancer in
1961: ‘Although he was a keen mountaineer,
I know little of what and where he climbed.
I have no scent or record of his adventures.
For all I know, he might have climbed here
in Norway.’
And so, of course, the seeds of Cracknell’s
second piece are planted. Lying awake in the
chill of a high Norwegian mountain pass, she
is inclined to think of her ‘valley’ as ‘strangely
punctuated’, as something of a terminal moraine,
perhaps, and of herself as ‘a full stop’: ‘I
returned home thinking about this. I wanted
to follow more whispering ways; to seek out
stories that still echo underfoot…’
The second piece, ‘Outlasting our Tracks’,
is the story of Cracknell’s attempt at the
Finsteraahorn, in the Bernese Oberland
(Switzerland), and is a mountaineer’s account
of a serious climb, full of the insights and detail
an armchair climber longs to read: ‘The
rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of
individual reveries and slow waking with the
need to communicate. Like riding a tandem,
pauses will need negotiation.’ It is also an account
of Cracknell’s attempt to ‘colour in the
shaded outline in [her father’s] photograph’,
for at half her age he had led an expedition to
the Finsteraahorn, in 1952, and this was her
answer to the call to follow him.
Her account of the climb, of fewer than
forty rather small pages, soon has me breathless.
By the time they reach the crest I – merely
a reader – am exhausted by the terror, the effort
and the concentration, and I am about to
be assaulted by a ‘dark twist’ in the narrative
which will replace triumph with solemnity.
There is, however, a sense of loose ends being
knotted, a tidying of affairs: ‘this experience
will echo on. A spell has been untied; a story
retraced and given words out of silence.”
I finish, and put my copy of the book
aside with a sigh. Some readers will find the
photos and maps that occur at various places
in the book add little, and may even detract.
They do, however, emphasise the personal
nature of both the writing and the subject
matter. There is a particular tenderness when
Cracknell considers fathers and their daughters,
as far removed from sentimentality as
it is possible to be. There are gentle insights
into the deep-rooted bonds of kinship, and
a merciful absence of fashionable angst. This
is a book to take with you somewhere quiet,
but take a notebook, too, so that you can jot
down your plans to follow, metaphorically at
least, in the author’s footsteps.

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