Thursday, July 17, 2014

"The Ice Palace" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What distinguishes pastoral poetry from other poetry is a sense of place. Pastoral poets believe that place shapes those who dwell near sheep and cattle, birds and streams. The poets suggest that living so close to the circle and cycles of life, endows shepherds and farmers with ardor, humility, and insights less easily attained by those who live apart from nature.

City-dwellers, on the other hand, tend to be more driven, no more and no less hard-working than rustics, but more competitively for daily, they brush shoulders with others on the same path with the same objectives. They become more ruthless, knowing that the great pack of humanity will kick out weaker members.

Our lore is ripe with inferences drawn about others based upon place. Russians, for example, are thought to be mirthless, in need of vodka to make it through the long monochromatic winters and want. The French believe in vacations, in family and love, in sharing their wealth with those in need; their own civic and familial pride grants them a measure of arrogance that Westerners dislike. Greeks and Italians gesticulate broadly. They are loyal to older family members, and like the French or Spanish, believe in time taken for food, family and rest daily.

Even here at home in the United States, place sculpts our perceptions. Southerners sometimes behave as if the Civil War isn’t over, as if civil rights had not been decided in favor of all. Northerners seem to believe that Southerners don't just manifest a fondness for molasses, but have molasses for brains. Those who dwell in New England believe they think more quickly and are more enlightened, especially when comparing themselves to those sluggish folk across the Bible Belt.

Winter Hunting
An eagle flies above ice in search of open water and food.
Photo by Al Griffin
The power of place intrigues Fitzgerald and thus, he gives us “The Ice Palace,” built from thick blocks of ice, grand as befitting its palatial name, dark without the torches held aloft by platoons of men hardy enough to withstand frigid temperatures most of the year. These people take pride in ruddy cheeks and surefooted trespass over icy ground.

Into this icy realm ventures Sally Carol, a Southerner who longs for adventure. She cannot love any of the Southern boys in her hometown because they’ve been ruined by their love for the South. They don’t dream of being anywhere else. They cling to old traditions and each other, and they do not aspire to more. Their cars are old but sufficient. Their homes wilting in the depleted Southern soil, but they can’t imagine moving.

Sally herself has a bond to the soil. On it, Southern boys died trying to defend a way of life, and she grows nostalgic thinking of them. She loves them for their sacrifice.

Her northern fiancĂ© cannot fathom such regard. He thinks of Southern men as too soft, too self-indulgent, too frail, and he makes the mistake of saying so. This chills Sally Carol’s hopes that he can keep her warm through a long winter. Place has too powerful a hold upon her.

Reading Challenge:

Read Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” Consider reading other authors for whom place has power, Cormac McCarthy for example.

Writing Challenge:

Invent a character sculpted by a place.