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The Polar Conquest of Love : SPRING THAW by S. L. Stebel (Walker & Co.: $17.95; 236 pp.)

July 09, 1989|Judith Freeman | Freeman is the author of "Family Attractions" (stories) and "The Chinchilla Farm," a novel to be published by W. W. Norton in October. and

When I was little more than a child my imagination was caught by a book called "Alone," written by Adm. Richard E. Byrd. Published in 1938, it's the reflective and ultimately spiritual journal Byrd kept during a solo expedition to gather meteorological data in the region of the South Pole.

For five months, Byrd lived alone in a shack sunk in the ice with temperatures reaching minus 50 and 60 degrees. Each day he emerged through a trap door to read his instruments above ground, also noting the look of things in the polar winter ("storm-blue bulge of darkness . . .") he was experiencing, and in which he almost perished. He came to believe that "such beauty was reserved for distant and dangerous places" which "extract a price from those who would witness it."

Two or three writers since have succeeded in conjuring up that polar beauty for me again--Ursula K. Le Guin in a brilliant story called "Sur," and Doris Lessing in the fourth of the "Canopus in Argos" books, "The Making of a Representative for Planet 8." Now I would add S. L. Stebel's evocatively ice-bound novel, a book of winning beauty and mythology, "Spring Thaw," which is set on a ship near an island in the region of the North Pole.

The story revolves around an expedition of seal hunters, who set out in a ship called the Seljegeren for the annual harvest of seal pelts. The Seljegeren's old captain is ailing and his son, Jason, from whom he is estranged, assumes command of the ship. The sailor-hunters are anxious for the kill, their annual livelihood depends on it, and already, other ships are taking up the best waters. During a fierce storm at sea, Jason stumbles across an old chart in his father's cabin, and against the advice of the more experienced of his crew, heads for a cluster of islands called the Mirabelles, where a quick and bountiful harvest is hoped for.

The ship anchors off the Mirabelles, ice encroaching and threatening to freeze it in place. A sullen, defeated population greets them hastily, dark and heavy villagers slogging across the ice like medieval Grendels wary of the stranger in the mead hall, a broken people who no longer even hunt their own abundant seals. Some force seems to protect the seals from being killed, as the crew of the Seljegeren discover when they attempt a slaughter and meet with inexplicable accidents.

This is no medieval tale however. We are meant to understand that Jason has witnessed the bombing of a marine base in Lebanon ("We lifted what was left of once able-bodied men . . . our hands sticky with substances the mind would not contemplate . . ."), an experience so psychologically destabilizing that he has been relieved of command in the Navy. Is the destructive, malevolent force he encounters in the Mirabelles the psychological residue of modern war, or a "spiritual visitation . . . the creation of shame-ridden mind" in an ecologically unbalanced world?

In time Jason discovers the truth, which is that the force protecting the seals is a spirit-woman whom Jason's father had wronged many years ago, and with whom he engages in a somnambulistic hearth-side fever-love. Now he asks: Is he his father's rival, a self-deluded fool, or the inheritor of a family curse?

By the time the reader comes to the final father-son confrontation scene, Jason, like the seeker of the Golden Fleece, has made heroic discoveries through trial and confrontation, in a story with very modern overtones. "Spring Thaw" is immensely enjoyable, a book with considerably more going for it than its evocation of ice-bound wonder, but for this alone, I was rather grateful.

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