For days I have been in a land of ice, snow and frozen vistas. I have shivered through the nights and sweated with back-breaking labour during the days… Well, not really. I’ve been sitting indoors on comfy furniture reading the extremely evocative new novel by Canadian author, Iain Lawrence.
A co-worker passed Winter Pony on weeks ago with high praise. But true to form, I had other books on my list, and I put it off. I had no idea what was waiting for me. This is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s epic quest to reach the South Pole – a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica. The novel is told from an overarching historical vantage point, and from the point of view of one of the animals brought by Captain Scott – a plucky, if tired, pony called James Pigg. Lawrence imagined much of this story, but he also stayed true to the facts wherever possible, and obviously immersed himself in the historical record, and the lives of ponies. This book was startling and left me feeling mournful and rather chilly.
I won’t ruin the story for those who don’t know the tale of Scott’s voyage – as I didn’t. Lawrence claims he might not have written the book if he had known what it would entail; similarly, I’m not sure I would have read it if I had known the journey I was on. But once I started I was captivated. The writing is excellent, and though there is a lot of bleakness, there is humour and comfort also. The scale of hardship, compassion, and betrayal in this book is hard to fathom, and I sat puzzled by the recommended age level of 9-12. They want 9 year olds to read this? I’m not sure I was old enough for it!
To sketch it out: our white pony is captured in his youth from the mountains where he was born wild and free. For years he is overworked and beaten by cruel men. One day he is bought and sent on a long journey by train and then boat. He finds himself among kinder men than he has ever experienced, but also in an unimaginably harsh climate. Named James Pigg by the Englishmen, he is part of a team of ponies and dogs gathered together to help Scott reach his destination. The scale of these preparations is remarkable: first the men, dogs and ponies travel south during the summer, laying down the supplies they will need the next year. Then they return to their base camp to wait out the winter. The next spring they venture out again in a long dash over hundreds of miles to reach the South Pole. And this is all in a tense race against Amundsen – never really knowing if he has already stolen their prize of becoming the first to reach the Pole.
The relationship between the men and ponies was incredibly touching to read. Through James Pigg’s eyes, the reader sees Captain Scott as a brave, compassionate, and driven man who refuses to yield before his ambitions. The themes of this novel are incredibly grown-up – but they are told largely through the eyes of a rather child-like pony, which renders it all a bit softer and more bearable. I think it would be a wonderful book to experience with children. I cannot help but think it would be a memorable read, and one that might lead them into finding more fiction or nonfiction about these adventurers.
By all means, immerse yourself in this frozen world – but make sure you pack plenty of provisions, and that you don’t get lost on your return journey. This is not a voyage for the faint of heart.