It’s feeling awfully cold in Washington, DC today, and I’m not even close to the epicenter of the polar vortex that’s cutting an icy swath through the United States today, where schools are closed, cities are taking emergency measures to protect homeless people from the cold, and temperatures are diving well into the negatives. I’m at work, but if you’re staying home because of work closures, or because school’s closed and you’ve got to keep an eye on your chilly children, this is a terrific day to curl up with something hot to drink and a great book. In particular, if you’re looking for reading material that puts the current cold snap in some context, here are five recommendations for books about the cold that will remind you it could always be worse.
1. A Song Of Ice And Fire, George R.R. Martin: Martin’s epic saga spills across continents and climate zones, stretching from the bitter north to desert kingdoms that have essentially no economy other than slave-trading. But the most important pressure that shapes all of the characters’ actions, whether they’re thinking about it or not, is the fact that the world in which the series is set has years-long winters and summers. And after an exceptionally long summer, a generation that has never known winter is heading into what could be a particularly bitter one, and facing winter at a time when war has disrupted harvests and preparation for the bitter season. Oh, and an army of ice zombies is rising in the far North, and presumably preparing to advance south to advance their numbers. If you’re late to Martin’s series and the HBO show that’s based on it, this is a great time to remind yourself that however nasty the polar vortex is now, spring is actually coming in our world.
2. Endurance, Alfred Lansing: Ernest Shackleton’s polar explorations would have been amazing even if you leave out the voyage of the Endurance. But that trip is what made him legendary. On a trip to Antarctica, the Endurance became trapped in polar ice. Realizing that it would be impossible to free the ship, Shackleton ordered his men to conduct a winter station on the ice, foraging what they could from the ship as it was crushed. Ultimately, they made it to Elephant Island in lifeboats, and then Shackleton lead a daring open ocean voyage, through hurricane-force winds to South Georgia–and then Shackleton hiked 32 miles over the mountains to get aid for his men. Lansing captures his journey in great detail, with good humor, and with a powerful sense of Shackleton’s determination. Reading it will remind you that at least you’re inside, rather than camping on an Antarctic ice floe and hunting seals for dinner.
3. The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Wilder’s memoirs of her pioneer childhood are some of the best young adult books ever written, but they’re tough enough to be bracing reading for adults. And that’s most true of The Long Winter, her chronicle of the winter of 1880-1881 in De Smet, South Dakota. The season starts with an October blizzard and continues for seven more months. Wilder captures the psychological toll of the bitter cold and the noise of the howling wind her father drives back with his fiddle music until his hands crack and bleed. And she’s frank about the physical costs of the winter, which went on so long that Wilder’s family twisted hay into knots they could burn when they ran out of wood, and that her farming family began to slowly starve because food to supplement their harvest couldn’t get into town on trains that were frozen into snow banks. It’s a tremendous book whether you’re encountering it as a grown-up, or reading it to your children (The Long Winter, and the rest of Ingalls’ series should work equally well for boys and girls alike).
4. Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson: One of the most-repeated statistics about the polar vortex is that it’s colder in parts of the United States right now than it is on Mars. To get a sense of just what that means, read the first book in Kim Stanely Robinson’s trilogy about the settlement of Mars. One of the biggest challengers for the first, multi-national team of settlers to arrive on the planet is the persistent cold, which affects almost everything they do, from their decision to build heated pools in their first dwellings, to their vulnerability to attacks from earth. Red Mars is one of my favorite books, and it’s attention to detail like this that makes it so.
5. Lioness Rampant, Tamora Pierce: I mostly just think that if you haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s books, and you enjoy the current era of movies in which young women act as credible and thoughtful action heroines, you should get started on the Lioness quartet as soon as possible. But Lioness Rampant, the fourth book in that series about a young woman who disguises herself to become a knight and rises to become the foremost champion of her kingdom, involves a quest in the unbelievably bitter cold.