Recap: When a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s one thing. But when the diagnosis becomes national news because the patient also happens to be living at the South Pole for a year, it’s another thing entirely. Add to that the fact that the story is true, and you have one hell of a book on your hands. Such is the case with Dr. Jerri Nielsen’s Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.
Ice Bound is an autobiography of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who — after a messy divorce and abandonment by her children — decides to escape from her life for a bit by working at the South Pole. The book details her decision to live there, the work she accomplished while in Antarctica, and what the life of a “Polie” is like. Nielsen finds her work as the Polie physician to be challenging — due to outdated and insufficient equipment — but exciting — after all, how many times do you get to visit the South Pole??
As time passes, we come to know Nielsen’s Polie friends and understand how familiar they become with such ungodly temperatures — 100 degrees below freezing. We also get a glimpse of Nielsen’s relationships, since she includes copies of her emails sent while at the Pole. But what’s key is that the South Pole’s winter lasts 8-and-a-half months, during which time no planes can land on the Ice to bring supplies or visitors, because of the deeply cold temperatures. And that’s the exact time Nielsen notices a lump on her breast — a cancerous lump that she must study and treat herself.
Analysis: Typically, the subject of cancer in books, movies, and TV is an excuse to make people cry, no matter how poor the writing and/or acting is. But here, Nielsen is telling the story, and she’s not telling us so we can feel bad for her. She’s telling us because she’s in complete disbelief about her own experience. By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that writing this book was cathartic for Nielsen — something she had to do to come to terms with the twists and turns that were thrown her way.
Her writing is straight-forward. Instead of attempting to explain how she felt, she showed it with the use of anecdotes and emails. She includes the reader in her life, events, and circle of friends, giving a sense of warmth and familiarity to each of the characters. This was very effective in that — again — the reader doesn’t cry, but simply understands. And anyway, the woman has cancer. There’s no reason to waste precious book space by saying she feels scared and tired — we know that already.
MVP: Jerri Nielsen is the obvious choice here, but I like to go with the not-so-obvious people. In that case, Big John, Nielsen’s best friend at the Pole. He takes care of her, emails her parents, measures the lump on her breast, learns to assist with her chemotherapy sessions, and tucks her into bed — and it’s purely platonic. We should all have a friend like Big John.