It’s not often that a novel can combine thrilling action with fascinating characters and a setting that is depicted so precisely that we shiver while reading about venturing out onto pack ice in Northern Canada. Alice Henderson accomplishes all that and more in “A Blizzard of Polar Bears,” as she shares another adventure for wildlife biologist Alex Carter, who takes a job researching polar bears for a report for Canada’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. Her job in Montana working with wolverines has just ended, so this job offer seems fortuitous.
But as Alex arrives in Churchill, on the Hudson Bay, in frigid weather, her study seems plagued with unfortunate events. The helicopter pilot quits to get a better paying job, equipment is missing when it’s badly needed, and there is a break-in at the lab, when someone wipes Alex’s computer and steals her polar bear samples, which she had meticulously collected and stored.
We know that a group of people are looking for something—we don’t know what—as we witness a violent act in the prologue, and we see that Alex is caught in the middle of this desperate search. We don’t know what exactly the people are looking for, but we do realize that they will do anything to find the item. Henderson maintains the mystery throughout most of the story, and she puts us in the middle of the action as we read the third person narration from Alex’s point of view. We feel her frustrations, and we admire her resiliency and ability to take care of herself. This is not someone who will be rescued by a guy, but rather a capable, brilliant academic who also can handle herself in a fight, whether it be on land, on ice, or in the water.
Henderson actually works with wildlife as a sanctuary monitor, so her novels not only provide a gripping reading experience filled with action, but they additionally provide information about the animals and habitats that the scientists in the novel are studying. One such climatic event is called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, and it’s described in the novel as the cause of droughts in California. In spite of its “ridiculous” name, it’s a real thing. We also learn about how polar bears are studied by seeing how Alex tranquilizes them and monitors them after they are sedated, and how she takes different kinds of samples from them. Researchers look at prior notes on polar bears that were tagged previously to see how they are growing and what chemicals and pollutants are in their blood, their fat, their hair, and their nails. Polar bears who are nursing have their milk analyzed to see how many environment pollutants are being passed on to the cubs.
Through Alex’s narration, we also learn about the fascinating and horrifying fact of biomagnification. PCBs were banned in the US almost half a century ago, but they still contaminate much of the earth and are in the soil, air, and water. PCBs harm humans and animals by interfering with the ability to make antibodies, thus resulting in a decreased ability to fight off infection. Because PCBs and toxins like mercury, both products of industrial waste and pollution, are everywhere, tiny organisms like plankton consume food tainted with the pollutants. Then when a larger organism eats lots of tiny ones, they become “carriers” of the pollutants. Each time a creature higher on the food chain consumes a smaller one, it’s consuming all the pollutants that all the creatures in that food chain consumed. By the time a bear eats a seal which has eaten a fish which has eaten a smaller fish or crustacean which has consumed plankton, the toxins are magnified and dangerous. They are also passed on to their young in the milk of mammals such as polar bears.
Most of us who read a newspaper or watch the news know about climate change and the disappearing pack ice which is making it increasingly more difficult for polar bears to survive. Regardless, Henderson provides facts about exactly why this is so.We even learn about an endangered mammal closer to home, here in the US. The pika, a rabbit-like animal, lives on mountain ranges and loves the cold. It collects grass and dries it for survival over the winter. But because of climate change and increasingly warm weather, the pikas are forced to move higher and higher in the mountains until there is nowhere left for them to go. So their overall population is in decline. Henderson writes, “Because pika populations in the Rockies were faring a little bit better than their comrades in other ranges, some government officials decided that it was okay to let them die out in the Sierra Nevada and throughout the Great Basin.”
Readers who love wildlife and share concern about the state of climate change and our depredation of our natural resources will feel camaraderie with Alex Carter as she explains why she became a wildlife biologist, “Monarch butterflies are vanishing. American pikas are disappearing as the earth warms. Wolves and grizzlies are being killed in staggering numbers, gunned down by trophy hunters and governments; vast tracts of habitat are being destroyed; acidification of the ocean; the vanishing of polar sea ice…” And as we read this novel, we know that in real life right now, wolves are being hunted and killed in overwhelming numbers. One social media group posted, “Wolves remain under attack across the country. States like Idaho and Montana have declared a war on wolves authorizing the slaughter of up to 90% of their wolf populations. Earlier this year, a hunt in Wisconsin saw over 200 wolves killed in less than 60 hours.” The challenges depicted in this novel are not fictional but very real.
After reading Alice Henderson’s novels, maybe more people will understand why this situation is so egregious and so frightening. And she perceptively highlights how the rich and powerful, who benefit financially from the destruction of our earth because of their investments and their companies, gaslight those who would call them out by claiming their companies only care about the people and the jobs. Asking questions that many will not stop to critically consider like, “Is it more important to protect the bears or provide jobs for people?” The response should be that it’s not an “either/or” question. Protecting bears and other wildlife while trying to stop climate change and protect our environment will only help all people in the future.
Henderson’s writing is not all action, climate change, and mystery. Her narrative is beautiful and evocative and she is so capable of describing a setting that we can feel it and practically smell and hear it. An example is a paragraph describing an evening in the desert: “At night, the fragrance of desert wildflowers carried on the wind. The moon rose, painting the desert silver. Javelinas snuffled around in the undergrowth, their little brown-and-white-striped babies skittering and prancing playfully among the adults. Coyotes serenaded them with their eerie yips and howls. Nectar-feeding bats came on silent wings, hovering over night-blooming cacti. And up above, the curve of the Milky Way spanned the heavens like a magical trail of campfires of ghosts long past.” Poetry included in the mystery – no extra charge.
Reading Alice Henderson’s mysteries almost feels like cheating. They are mysteries filled with action; they are exquisitely expressed; and we really like Alex Carter and her passion for doing the right thing. We also get the experience of visiting exotic locales through the author’s incredibly vivid descriptions — and we never have to leave the comfort of our couch. As still another added bonus, by the time we finish this novel, we feel as though we could describe the process of studying polar bears and explain why it’s imperative that this research be done. So many benefits from reading a book that once begun is difficult to put down.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.