I read the novel Fram by Steve Himmer for my recent Booktopia weekend. Steve was one of the featured authors there, so I had the honor of meeting him in person and discussing his book with him and 30 other readers, which only intensified my enjoyment of this unique, intricate novel about life, love, marriage…and polar exploration.
Oscar lives a quiet, routine life, working for a secret government agency called the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, begun during the Cold War simply because the U.S. discovered that Russia had one. Oscar and his partner, Alexi, work in a tiny basement office with a blank map of the Arctic on the wall. Their job is to invent Arctic discoveries and developments and then create a paper trail of documents that “proves” they exist, to save the cost of actual polar expeditions. The ironic part is that Oscar has dreamed since he was a little boy of being a polar explorer, so he is living out his fantasies from his neat desk in the basement under a single lightbulb.
During his off-hours, Oscar shares a small apartment with his wife, Julia, though they seem to have been drifting apart during the last few years. Oscar’s polar obsession continues at home, where he frequently checks his phone to watch the North Pole cam (which mostly just shows ice and wind) and peruses his extensive collection of National Geographic magazines. This quiet, predictable routine is broken one day when Oscar and Alexi are unexpectedly – and suddenly – sent to the Arctic for real.
From there, the novel leaps into a higher gear, with elements of mystery, adventure, and espionage right alongside Oscar’s rich inner life. There are plenty of twists and turns from there, keeping the reader guessing right up until the last sentence (and beyond!). Alongside Oscar’s story are chapters that flash back to other related events: various polar expeditions, lives of Arctic residents, and earlier explorations.
One event in particular is returned to again and again, giving the novel its name and its main theme. An early Polar exploration team, on the ship the Jeanette, got stuck in the ice for the winter and everyone on board perished. A later exploration ship, the Fram, learned from the Jeannette’s mistakes and went to the Arctic planning to get stuck in the ice. The ship was reinforced to take the pressure of the ice into account and the crew stocked enough provisions, planning to get stuck for the winter, and used the natural drift of the ice to travel around and to the Pole. The author uses Fram as an important symbol of Oscar’s quiet, steadfast life and even his stagnant marriage:
“Fram was a reminder there was no failure in just staying put. That stillness was its own kind of motion, sometimes preferable to the real thing.”
Fram is not just an action novel set in the Arctic – it has some of those elements, but it is also a very thoughtful and thought-provoking novel. The author uses Oscar and his unusual experiences to delve into the mysteries of life and love and the intricacies of marriage. In fact, I loved the way that Steve characterized Oscar and Julia’s marriage, with all of its inside jokes that brought them together and secrets (Oscar’s job is top-secret) that pulled them apart.
What starts out as a tongue-in-cheek look at government bureaucracy turns into a race to the Arctic complete with evil people and agencies in the shadows. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of Fram – its suspense, its original story, but mostly the very clever, intricate, and thoughtful way that all of its disparate pieces come together. I can’t wait to read more from Steve Himmer.
288 pages, Ig Publishing
P.S. If, like me, you aren’t thrilled with the way the novel seems to end, take heart! When I asked about it at Booktopia, Steve said that the ending is open to interpretation…so I decided to choose the ending I wanted!
|Steve Himmer at Booktopia|