A spate of memoirs penned by women centering around adventures through wilderness has hit bookshelves in the past few years, but Blair Braverman’s Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube is not one of them. There are no neat delineations from broken to whole, no tidy endings tied up in bows. It’s a memoir, yes, and much of it takes place in alien landscapes, but Braverman avoids the common pitfalls of the “finding yourself” genre by refusing to treat nature as a cure-all to what ails her, opting instead for ongoing growth and reconciliation, and never quite coming to firm conclusions, even by book’s end.
The wilderness of Braverman’s journey is the arctic north, a mix of locales in northern Norway and an Alaskan glacier. Both provide singular challenges, cold being the least of them. Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube hews so closely to the old writers’ adage “show, don’t tell” that an award for straightforward storytelling should be named after her. Taking an interesting and at times disconcerting approach, Braverman often skips self-reflection in favor of frank “this happened, then this happened” storytelling, allowing the evidence to build as to her state of mind, rather than telling the reader the effect continuous struggle and harassment has on her. It’s a deceptively elegant way to tell her story, the understated writing making room for big events to pack a more powerful punch.
Braverman writes about her late teenage and early twentysomething years, first defined by a desire to go north, then transformed to a desire to not only go north, but on her own terms, safe in her own body. Her first trip to Norway as an exchange student in high school was dominated by her threatening host father, who took away much of Braverman’s self-confidence with constant harassment and an exhausting impending threat to harm. She returns to Norway for a “folk school,” where she learns to survive in the arctic and mush sled dogs. This leads her to the job on the glacier—the titular Ice Cube—where a boyfriend refuses to hear “no,” or even to accept a breakup.
And that’s not even considering the myriad other men—lesser fixtures who come and go—who harass Braverman in their own special ways, be it “jokes” about giving blow jobs or an unexpected lick on her neck. The foreignness of the landscapes throw the issues that constantly plague women into sharp relief; it’s hard to ignore sexual harassment when you’re stuck on a glacier with mostly men, only able to get away via helicopter. The culture difference in Norway only underlines how universal it is, a wry challenge to the idea many Americans hold of Scandinavian countries as idyllic lands of perfect equality and harmony.
So Braverman returns to Norway again, without much of a plan but determined to regain the pieces those men chipped away at. She returns to the village of her old folk school, the sparsely populated Mortenhals, where she finds a retreat as a casual employee at an “old store” and befriends the elderly owner. Their friendship creates the backbone of the memoir, as Braverman settles into the slow pace of life in Mortenhals while her past is told in a flashback-like narrative structure. It makes for a fascinating read, as her glacier boyfriend’s escalating sexual force shares pages with learning how to care for huskies, alongside truly harrowing vignettes on arctic survival, like the dreadfully claustrophobic depiction of the night she spent sleeping in the snow, only to awake buried beneath it, and the terror of getting lost on a remote patch of snowy land with no safeguards except faith in the dogs leading her sled.
At times this narrative structure is confusing, especially in the opening chapters, before the reader is acquainted with Braverman’s history. The same is true of some of the characters; many are introduced at once, and only through plunging ahead can they be sorted out. But Braverman is a good host, bringing the reader with her to remote locales and introducing them to a lively cast of supporting characters. Above all it’s about the kind of survival women have to fight for, and the dangerous but rewarding thrills of snowy isolation and physical hardship usually only enjoyed by men. There’s strength in Braverman’s pared-down prose, and it makes the few times she does confide her desires, frustrations, and fears more powerful for holding back. It’s a deeply nuanced approach, making Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube a strange, remarkable memoir.