Unimaginable hardships amid stunning beauty

  • Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy. Ultimo Press, #32.99.

Imagine visiting the high Arctic. Stunning mountains. Massive glaciers. Snow, wind, ice, polar bears.

Now imagine living there for a year in a rudimentary hut, and it's your job to hunt Arctic foxes, seals, ptarmigan and hungry polar bears.

Cold Coast, a new novel by Robyn Mundy, is a fictionalised account of the life of Wanny Wolstad, the first female trapper to work in the wild ice kingdom of Svalbard, a series of remote islands north of Norway.

In 1932, Wanny, a young widow, persuades Anders Saeterdal to employ her as his assistant to hunt foxes and bears in Hornsund, Svalbard. It's a hard life. They have basic food supplies but have to hunt seals to eat, as well as ptarmigan to bait their traps along the frozen coast.

As a woman, Wanny must prove herself to be as strong and capable as a man. There are many dangers and hardships. She and Anders must avoid crevasses when traversing glaciers. They must judge when the ice is too unstable to cross. They must always be alert to the possibility of encountering a polar bear. They must ensure they don't run out of food. They must tend to their own injuries - there's no chance of rescue; the next boat will be the one that collects them at the end of the season.

The change of seasons unfolds gradually, as does Wanny and Anders's friendship, through long hours in the huts and working in freezing conditions. Their main aim is to collect the valuable white winter pelts of Arctic foxes. They kill and skin polar bears too. And there are also occasional blue foxes, the most highly prized. One young blue fox, who they name Little Blue, ranges close to their hut, but defies all efforts to trap her.

Mundy excels in her evocative descriptions of the wild Arctic landscapes and its wildlife inhabitants. The reader is immersed in place and weather; the savage storms, the jutting mountains and frozen ocean, the shifting light. The winter is dark and harsh, but this is the time to trap foxes in their full winter coats. With the summer comes a degree of abundance - 24-hour daylight and migratory birds.

Cold Coast is a stunning novel, rich in metaphor and symbolism. Little Blue embodies cleverness, independence and freedom, all of which Wanny seeks. Polar bears represent danger, uncertainty and risk. The land itself and its seasons and associated hardships and decision-making, mimic life.

Mundy's writing is poetic and lyrical. It transports the reader to a perilous but unexpectedly luminous part of the world that most people will never visit.

  • Karen Viggers writes novels set in wild landscapes. Her latest book is The Orchardist's Daughter.
This story Unimaginable hardships amid stunning beauty first appeared on The Canberra Times.