Introducing Andrea Pitzer--Author of Icebound: Shipwrecked At The Edge Of The World

A Conversation About Resilience (plus video of Sasha, a Russian sailor, serenading walruses)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a book publicist with the following subject line:

“Overcoming Adversity — How about Being ICEBOUND & Shipwrecked in the Arctic? A. Pitzer’s history of William Barents’ 1596 failed Far East trade route voyage”

I couldn’t resist contacting A. Pitzer for a Wavemaker Conversation. I’m always searching for inspiration on how to overcome adversity, particularly given today’s relentless challenges.

Andrea Pitzer’s book, Icebound: Shipwrecked At The Edge Of The World, is the story of Dutch navigator William Barents, and the three terrifying expeditions he led in the uncharted waters of the Arctic more than 400 years ago.

Pitzer recounts how Barents and his crew had to abandon their ship when it became trapped in the ice, forcing them to drag their smaller boats and supplies across long stretches of frozen sea.

She recounts that it was so cold “…frost crystallized on their shirts … and icicles began to form on their clothes.”

She recounts how members of Barents’ crew were so desperately hungry they ate polar bear livers, which poisoned them and caused layers of their skin to peel off from head to toe.

Deficient in vitamin C, the crew battled for survival while suffering from the extreme lethargy and fatigue caused by scurvy.

Pitzer went on three expeditions to the Arctic to better imagine the hardships that Barents and his crews experienced.

She ran a dog sled team on an expedition during the polar night, in which there is no daylight 24/7. She recounts in the short clip below how this experience taught her “to see in other ways.”

Who Is Andrea Pitzer?

Andrea Pitzer discovered the joy of reading as a child in Parkersburg, West Virginia, at her grandparents’ bookstore.

…my father’s parents had a store in my hometown, a bookstore, and they lived above that bookstore and there was a back entrance. So I could go down when the bookstore was closed and read at will in that bookstore.

Pitzer shared with me that she was “profoundly depressed for many, many years” as a teenager and young adult:

…trying to figure out why — why do you have somebody in your household who picks you up by the hair, who hits you with a belt, who loses the house to bankruptcy? Is this the way that other people live? And so … I don't want to portray myself as somebody who was endlessly resilient, who just got back up and dealt with the next thing.

She was sufficiently resilient, though, to pursue her love of learning. Her high performance as a student propelled her to Georgetown University, which left her “strapped with incredible debt, because I had to put myself through school.”

She got by as a music critic, a portrait painter, a French translator, a record store manager. She earned a black belt in karate and taught martial arts full time for seven and a half years.

It wasn’t until after her children were born that she would make the “slow turn” to what she’d wanted to do most — write for a living.

The Kingdom of Zembla

Pitzer took a grad school class on the Russian author, Nabokov, and wrote a book about him. In the course of her research, she stumbled upon a story that sparked an obsession that led to Icebound.

There were these islands called Nova Zembla North of Russia, and there was a fantasy kingdom in one of his novels called Zembla. And so one of my crazy pursuits became, “What’s the relationship between these two?” And I found this story of William Barents, this Dutchman, who had been in the Arctic stranded more than 400 years ago with … a crew. And they were trying to survive the winter.

As the 17th century approached, Barents and others believed if they sailed north far enough — to the Arctic lands above Russia — they might discover warmer waters that could provide a trade troute to China.

On Barents’ first two expeditions, the crew encountered too much ice and had to turn back.

But on the third journey, they would turn back and it would be too late to come home and that’s where they then get stuck for the winter. …there’s a moment in January when they’ve been in polar night for weeks at this point, they’re hunkered in this cabin … they’ve faced relentless polar bear attacks. They have no way to be sure at all that any of them are going to survive the winter.

Here they are, their rations are running thin … They have no idea whether they’re going to survive the next two months … all they can do is try to find driftwood to burn for fuel, for wood, to stay warm and to cook their food. And it’s really looking bleak.

And then, at perhaps their bleakest moment, they decide to have a party — a celebration — to mark the Christian feast of the Epiphany. In the following 83-second excerpt, Pitzer shares that anecdote, which she calls the heart of her book.

If you’d like to watch the full conversation with Andrea Pitzer, including how her work and life experience have informed her approach to parenting, click here.

Or if you prefer the podcast format, you can listen and read along with the transcript here.

If you find these Wavemaker Conversation newsletters entertaining, informative and/or perspective-changing, please take a few seconds to subscribe.

And you can buy Icebound here.

Postscript: The Walruses & The Accordian

During Andrea Pitzer’s expedition to Nova Zembla, she encountered a large gathering of walruses — two-ton “monsters of the sea,” as Barents’ crew described them. That crew’s “first impulse was to slaughter and plunder,” Pitzer writes. “But their metal blades shattered against the walruses’ skin.”

The first impulse of Pitzer’s Russian crew was to serenade the walruses. Watch and listen as crewmember Sasha “pulled out an accordian-like instrument known as a garmonica and began playing a haunting Soviet-era waltz.”


Coming Attraction:

In the next edition of the Wavemaker Conversations newsletter, I speak with Julie Lythcott-Haims, whose 2015 book about overparenting, How To Raise An Adult, was a perspective changer for many parents.

Lythcott-Haims is coming out with a sequel of sorts called Your Turn: How To Be An Adult — which is directed at young people from age 18 into their 20s and even early 30s — some of the same cohort she advised during her decade as the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University.