Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

SPECIAL CAUTION: If you have not started this book or even, if like myself, you read things about Mount Everest years ago when you were a youngster, do NOT, I repeat loudly, DO NOT, read anything about the mountain or the people who climbed it, until AFTER you finish this book. I say this ONLY to ensure that you have the maximum experience of this fine piece of writing. I also know from personal experience that my reading was greatly enhanced by reading without advance research and that was just accidental.

This amazing book is a combination of fact and creative fiction. I read another book earlier this month that was similar and also by a Canadian (Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado). Both books have been extremely satisfying reads.

The story is told by Ruth and George Mallory in alternate chapters. It begins in 1920 as Ruth says to George:

“”Tell me the story of Everest,” she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face, creasing the corners of her eyes. “Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me.””

George and Ruth sat on the drawing room floor, laughing and tipsy, dinner growing cold on the table in the next room. Ruth was cross-legged opposite him, her grey skirt pulled tight across her knees. She picked up the single sheet of thick ivory paper from her lap and reread the invitation from the newly formed Mount Everest Committee again. “My husband, the world-famous explorer.” Ruth held up her glass of wine and he reached out with his own, the crystal ringing in the lamplit room. She was fairly bursting with happiness.

“I like the sound of that,” George said, and let himself imagine what it would be like to have people thinking about him, talking about him. The opportunities that success on Everest would bring. “I might be able to leave teaching, maybe even write full time. We could travel,” he said. “Have our own adventures.”

They spread a world atlas out on the floor and find their way from their home in Cambridge to the “curved spine of the Himalaya, with its foothills and plateaus.”Above All Things

“”It’s blank,” Ruth exclaimed when their hands reached the spot where Everest should be; there was only a series of names – no relief, no lines of ridges or elevations. Just words floating in an empty space, waiting to be claimed by him.

“”No one has mapped her yet. That’s what we’re going to do, Ruth – reconnoiter her, bring back the shape of her.” …There was an awe in his voice that he wanted her to share. He recited names and caressed the page before moving the map to navigate the skin beneath the folds of her skirt. “West to east – imagine them.  Cho Uyo, Gyangchungkang, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga.” They were like spices on his tongue, on hers, tingling.””

George explains that the mountain was named for George Everest who was the surveyor general of India but died from malaria without seeing Everest. She is proud of George and wants him to write her “about everything.” He replies that she will be with him, “Every step of the way.”

They talk about the height of the mountain and Ruth says,

“How do they know?…How do they know how tall it is if no one’s been there?” She thinks about how she will wait for him while he goes and does “what he planned for and dreamed about the mountain.” And she asks again, H”How do they know?…Maybe it isn’t even the tallest.”

“It has to be,” he said, his fingers lingering on the map. “”It has to be.”

Before he says his goodbyes to their three children and to Ruth, George carries out a ritual which endears him to readers everywhere: he tears out the last page of whatever book Ruth is reading and it goes with him. “Whatever book I am reading, no matter how close I am to finishing, I pace out the rest of the pages, reading slowly, timing the end with George’s return.”  How can you not really like this pair of people?

Once George leaves, the reader learns more and more about the relationship through Ruth and through letters and memories of both Ruth and George. One night when the climbing team has sought refuge in a monastery to regroup: a monastery that is more than two thousand years old and where, one of the team members remarks, monks “have been praying here since long before Christ was born.”

His first night there, George “conjures his last image of ” Ruth: “her face pale in the winter cold. She’d kissed him good-bye on the deck of the California, and he watched as she walked down the gangplank. But then she stopped, turned, and climbed back toward him. She lifted her gloved palms to her face, cupping it in her hands. There was his perfume – some spring flower – and the scent of the sea already clinging to her. She tared up at him, hard and earnest, the way she did when she needed him to believe her. “I only want you to make it,” she said, measuring every word,  “because you want it.  If you want it, then I want it. Your heart is mine. Mine is yours. But it really doesn’t matter to me, you know. Just you matter.”

George struggled to believe this. “”But she couldn’t have meant it. Not after everything he’d put her and the children through. “It feels as though we’ve spent more time apart than together, George,” she’d said as they battled about his return to Everest. “That’s not a marriage. I want to be with you. Isn’t that what you said you wanted?

The alternate sections present George’s experiences on the expedition: in the one titled, The North Col, 23,200 feet, they are at Advanced Base Camp where Sandy Irvine the youngest team member is left alone with Shebbeare and a half-dozen porters. The doctor, Somervell has gone higher and Sandy and two porters are supposed to follow. One of the porters was not in good shape: “When Sandy climbed into the tent, Shebbeare was staring at the porter. What was his name? That should be one of Somervell’s bloody tests (the doctor was always testing the men to determine what state they were in to climb higher etc): name the porters at altitude. He was the smallest man on the team, but strong….Lapkha. Lapkha Sherpa. that was it. …”I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” …Lapkha’s lips smacked against each other, dried white spittle gathering in the cracked skin. His tongue lolled out to lick them, thick and slow. But it was his eyes that were terrible….Lapkha’s eyes continued to bulge at him. …Sandy reached out and touched Lapkha’s hand, hushing him, trying to calm him as he might a trapped animal.”  The effect of altitude and extreme cold on the team members and the porters is vividly presented in these sections and the connections between several of the team members and their home and/or relational lives helps to keep the alternate view points connected.

In the section titled Assault, 27,000 feet, George had left Camp VI with his assigned team mate, Odell, and they had done ten hours of straight climbing. On the second day, however, even in the morning, Odell “was already wandering and he “stopped after every step, staring at is feet, inhaling three, four breaths for each step upward. George asked him to wait but Odell said he was fine. George told him he was slowing him down. George pushed on alone. He (George) could not see the summit at this point. He stopped for a brief break and then “stepped forward, and again, and again …then a sickening lurch in his stomach and he was falling. And the wrenching stop, his right arm over his head, a tearing at his shoulder. He screamed in pain. Above him, his ice axe was caught widthwise across the top of a crevasse…below him a gape of emptiness.

…This was how it could end, then, this easily. He wasn’t tied to anything. Not the mountain. Not Odell.”

Above All Things 2It doesn’t end there but it could have. The balance is good in this book between the personal story and the challenge posed by the mountain. And good between the actual facts and the imagined parts of the relationships.

Tanis Rideout did an interview with NPR on February 15, 2013 and said this regarding the origins of her interest in George Mallory and Mount Everest:

“I worked at an outdoor equipment store in Kingston, Ontario,…I didn’t know anything about camping…one of my coworkers was obsessed with everything to do with Everest and he would bring in videos, and one of the videos that he brought in was about the early expeditions…” and the interview continues with this in response to why she chose to focus on George’s wife Ruth:

” “Ruth in her own right is pretty gutsy…I thought in so much of the nonfiction literature that’s out there, Ruth is portrayed as being so good and supportive, and I thought, ‘she’s gotta be more interesting than that, she’s gotta be tougher than that, to be able to go toe-to-toe with this man for 10 years.’ ”

Tanis has definitely succeeded in creating a “gutsy” Ruth. There is a review of her poetry collection, Arguments with the Lake, in the archives of this blog.

 

Muse by Mary Novik

“I first heard my mother’s heartbeat from inside her dark, surrounding womb. It mingled with my own heart’s rhythm, then changed to a harsher, more strident beat. It was then that I had my first and most famous vision of a man kneeling in a purple cassock and biretta.”

“When I was older and further from my mother’s heartbeat, I told her this vision to bring her closer to me”. …My mother told me, “It was the eightieth day of your life, Solange, the day your soul entered your body. You moved inside me, telling me that I was carrying a daughter. This means we will soon have a finer place to live, a bed of riches in another chamber. Now that the Pope and his men have come to Avignon, Fortune will spin her wheel to raise us up.”

The person speaking is Solange Le Blanc and the setting is fourteenth-century Avignon where the Babylonian Captivity was established in 1305 when the pope refused to move to Rome . There were seven popes in Avignon beginning with Pope Clement V. The Roman Curia moved to Poitieres in France in 1305 and then to Avignon in 1309. In Rome itself there was much manoeuvering among the families who had produced the previous popes. These families included the Colonna who are mentioned in this book frequently. Francesco Petrarch was a poet in Colonna’s retinue and his connection to Laura de Noves can be followed up in Wikepedia. Both are major characters in The Muse.

Solange was named sol for the sun and ange for angel because it was claimed that she Musespoke with the tongue of an angel. She gained a reputation for clairvoyance which travelled about the countryside and when her mother died and she was taken to the abbey at Clairefontaine as an oblate where the nuns observed the rule of Saint Benedict.

The abbess in charge was Mother Agnes. Having a clairvoyant at the abbey was a practical matter for she could bring much fame and financial aid to the abbey and make a major difference to the welfare of the inhabitants.

“In my second year in the abbey, the abbess ordered me to run errands for Madame de Forres, a widow from Les Baux-de-Provence, who had just arrived to take her vows and work in the scriptorium. Nothing about Madame looked like a nun, not even her fine cambric wimple. In procession on Ascension Day, she walked a step behind the abbess, who wore the crest of the Clairefontaines and a heavy chain of office to assert her precedence.  Behind the two of them came the obedientiaries – the sacristan with her holy book, the librarian with her quill, the cellaress with her keys, the gardener with her shears, then the others in order of rank. After them flocked the familia: the lay sisters, Elisabeth and me, the servants, and the farm-workers.”

Madame Forres has brought a dowry to the convent and thus her position of importance was assured. She became a mentor to Solange who earned a skill that would be of major importance to her throughout her life as she had no parents and no independent source of wealth. Each day she became more skilled as a scribe.

Solange’s success along with what some determined was second-sight, brought her to the attention of the obedientiaries and she was accused of misconduct and called before a meeting to answer to the chapter. The abbess defends her and claims that the prediction Solange stands accused for was actually a prophecy and the understanding of how serious this could be caused Solange to have a far worse and frightening vision.

“I had never had a vision so profound and the dark intransigent power that had gripped me could return at any time. I did not wish to tell the abbess, for she would twist and transform my ravings into a prophecy that bore no resemblance to what I had seen.”

Events accelerate and Solange’s safety and status in the abbey are threatened further to the point where her entire life hangs in the balance.

“I could take no more. I was done. I must leave the abbey, but I meant to leave by my own power, not be driven out. Within minutes, I gathered a few belongings and was gone.”

She finds her way back to Avignon and the rue du Cheval Blanc and reestablishes herself with her old nanny/nurse Conmère. She sets herself up in business and begins to make a living using her skills as a scribe.Bridge of Saint Benezet 12th century

It is in her capacity as a scribe that she meets Francesco Petrarch who is trying to establish himself as a court poet in the retinue of Cardinal Colonna and who needs fair copies in the finest script to present to the courtiers with influence.

Francesco Petrarch

Above is the bridge of Saint Bénézet built in the 12th century. (www.galenfrysinger.com)

 

 

To the left is a likeness of Francesco Petrarch from Wikipedia.

 

Solange must walk a very fine line to maintain her standing in Avignon and this is a quite remarkable portrait of a truly self-made woman in medieval times. The tale ends as it begins, with Solange writing an account for her daughters of her life in Avignon and her fight for recognition of her accomplishments. “I skewered a fresh sheet of vellum and took a moment to savour its heady scent, for I was about to write the most important document of my life. I sharpened my quill and dipped it generously in ink.”

Mary Novik is also the author of Conceit which was the winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, a Globe and Mail Book of the Year, and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was about the daughter of the poet, John Donne. The author lives in Vancouver and has a website.