Nancy Lord, Alaska State Writer, on Brower’s “Fifty Years Below Zero”

by Nancy Lord

Recently, when I was in Kaktovik (for book research), someone told me I needed to read Fifty Years Below Zero, Charles Brower’s memoir of his life in the Arctic. In Kaktovik I’d met a number of Brower descendents and had my first experience with an Arctic winter—including spotting a polar bear and following tracks on a wind-scoured beach– so this seemed like a good idea. When I got back to Homer I sought out the 1942 classic in my library.

I do mean classic. Brower’s voice is as lively and compelling as it must have been when he sat around a woodstove and told his stories. Here he is as a New Jersey teen-ager going to sea, then heading off with friend George Leavitt to check out coal supplies in Alaska, visiting various North Slope villages and learning Inupiat ways, hunting whales from an umiak, ending up at a whaling station at Barrow. I’ve read a lot of Alaska history, but this book captures a remarkable place and time period—1883 to the 1940s—in a very personal, living way, with exquisite detail and deep understanding.

Through the course of his life, Brower was astoundingly Zelig-like in his proximity to historic Arctic events and famous people. Over the years he hosted various explorers and collectors—Stefansson, Rasmussen, Amundsen–who came through Barrow. He knew and traveled with Captain Healy on the famed revenue cutter Bear, and he spent time with Archbishop Hudson Stuck (“a thoughtful man.”) After traveling by umiak and sled to Icy Cape the summer of 1897, he accepted a lift back to Barrow on the whaler Navarch, one of the seven ships that froze that year into the ice; the “reindeer rescue” that brought food to the stranded whalers in Barrow is a well-known story, but I had not known of Brower’s role in leading to safety men from the Navarch after they were abandoned by their captain, and his subsequent role in the care of all the rescued whaling crews. Brower later watched Lindbergh fly by (but was down the coast and missed his Barrow landing), and kept the ice cleared (by shovel) for Alaska’s pioneer aviators (Wien, Eielson, Merrill). When Will Rogers and Wiley Post crashed their plane attempting to visit him, he tended to the bodies and the communication with the outside world.

But it was not celebrity or white man’s history that impressed Brower. His portraits of the Inupiaq people he learned from, worked with, and lived among are carefully drawn, lending those individuals the dignity of their own accomplished lives. He gives credit to the many ways in which their knowledge and technologies were superior to those of white men, and he also acknowledges the ways in which the collisions of cultures changed Arctic life forever. One of the most moving chapters of the books tells of the spread of disease after a festival in Barrow—when those returning to an inland village were later found dead all the way along the river home.

Here’s one of my favorite passages, from near the end of the book, when Brower had made a trip Outside: “Luxuries, soft living, so-called civilization—there’s nothing better to make me appreciate Barrow. And so, as usual, spring brought back the old lure of the Arctic and its wideopen spaces, its plain living, its deep but exciting peace in which man can think things out while he works.”

In the end, Brower’s book reminds me just how short Alaska’s history has been—how much change we’ve seen since this one man showed up in parts of the Arctic where people had not even seen a white man before.

Just a couple of months ago another Brower died. I noted this at the time because Arnold Brower Sr., the 86-year- old respected elder and whaling captain, had fallen though ice on his snowmachine on his way to his camp near Barrow. I think a lot these days about climate change brought on by the burning of so much fossil fuel in such a short period of time, and I’d wondered if Arnold, an expert in ice but perhaps not prepared for unprecedented weather changes, should be considered a victim of global warming. When I looked up his obituary, I learned that Arnold was the last surviving child of Charles Brower.

Father and son, two generations—from a time when life in the Arctic had been remarkably stable for hundreds if not thousands of years to 2008. I don’t even know what to say about 2008. We live in luxury, the “so-called civilization” of which Brower wrote. Even the people of Kaktovik and Barrow, however much they might still hold to traditional life and values, live in the luxury of warm houses and jet travel. There’s no going back, but what’s ahead for us must be the new great unknown.

6 thoughts on “Nancy Lord, Alaska State Writer, on Brower’s “Fifty Years Below Zero””

  1. What an interesting book! I definitely want to read this one know. I went to Kaktovik back in 1995 and had an amazing experience. Thanks for the review of a book I would otherwise never have known about.

  2. A great find. Thanks also for a nice sample of a 49 writers review. (We’re still looking for more book review volunteers. No obligation! Free books!)

  3. You did a nice job on this story. While I was a police officer in Barrow back in 2001, I made it a point to visit Charles daughter Sadie. We had a great conversation in her kitchen I asked her if she had received any mementos from the crash. She was a little surprised at the question. I explained that her father had promised the widow of Mr. Post, that the remains of the plane would be burned with the exception of the items she had asked to have shipped back to the lower forty eight. I pointed out that many of the remains of the aircraft could be found hanging on walls in different businesses in Barrow. Sadie finally said that her dad had given her a small box of items from the plane. The box was loaned to the gentleman in charge of building the first monument at the crash site. Sadie stated that he had died before the project was completed or right after. The box of items was never returned to Sadie. Anyway, great story from you and for those interested. Sadie also wrote a book that is worth the read. “Sadie Neokok, An Inupiaq Woman.” I read her book and her fathers at the same time. 50 Years Below Zero is still one of my favorites.

  4. 49 Writers is a new find for me.
    Your review of "50 Years Below Zero" brought back some important memories for me. I read the book while I was living in AKP with the Nunamiut in the mid-70's, getting a dog team together and teaching school – young and with open horizons of adventure in the Brooks Range.

    Brower's narrative of the flu epidemic, that sent the Nunamiut on a desperate trek inland to get back with their own family's, after being up in Barrow to trade for supplies, deeply affected me also. I remember talking to Elders James and Sarah Tobuk about that. Sarah, who spoke little English, got very solemn when James told her what I was asking about. She had visited her relatives graves just a few years previously. Sarah had been able to fly by bush plane out to the Colville River to the site of their deaths. I felt bad to have unknowingly dredged up sad memories for Sarah, but these sad memories from Sarah's life perhaps were a link between us from then-on. That I cared about and had read about this sad event was a bond between us.

    I loaned my copy of "50 Years Below Zero" to Pat Hugo, a friend from the village, and as with many books over the years, never thought about getting it back. I bought another used copy of the book in a little book store in Tok a few years ago, shelved it and after reading your review, will get it off the shelf to read again. I wouldn't have remembered what had precipitated the discussion with James and Sarah if I hadn't read your book review. Thanks, Nancy.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for finding us, Don! I enjoyed reading your own "50 Below Zero" memories.

  6. To Nancy: Charles Brower had a partner whose name was Tom Gordon. Charles, (in 50 Years) made vague mention of Tom Gordon "moving East," and after that there was no further mention of him. I have recently found mention of a Mr Gordon who is a Ranger at Hershall Island YT. It would be uncanny if the present Mr Gordon is not a descendent of Tom Gordon. Do you have anythong more about Tom Gordon? Bill Jones

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