Travels in Antarctica Deserta
My Last Continent
By Midge Raymond
Reviewed by Seana Graham
My Last Continent is told from the point of view of naturalist Deb Gardner, a loner who nevertheless entertains and educates the tourists aboard a small ship called the Cormorant, which brings the curious to Antarctica, in exchange for her passage there. Her real passion is ignited once she’s onshore and can study the habits of the penguin colonies she finds there. But as we learn, there is another passion in her life too.
The story begins after a major catastrophe has already taken place, when the cruise ship Australis, much bigger than the one Deb is traveling on, ventured too far into the pack ice and became trapped there, resulting in massive loss of life. The novel continues backwards, so to speak, alternating between the days immediately leading up to it, and different periods in Deb’s own life, which further illuminate her situation. It’s an artful way of telling the story, which doesn’t lack suspense because we already know of the shipwreck, but instead fuels our curiosity about how it came to happen.
We receive a naturalist’s instruction on the life of the different penguin species, their bonds and hardships. Deb worries for them a lot, and especially about what havoc human impact on their environment will wreak. We learn a lot about Antarctica in the process—its fragility for one thing, but also its dangers. As Deb muses on the foibles of the cruise ship passengers, and also on the balancing act that all these cruises must perform—keeping the customers happy while also keeping them safe, as well as keeping the place and its inhabitants safe from them—we are guided to see ourselves in some sense as the passengers, who Deb and the other naturalists must educate without offending. Yet the very means of educating people to care about the Antarctic by visiting it may very well be part of the way it will be irretrievably destroyed.
Raymond has Deb reflecting a good deal on the reasons people come to this cold continent. It is an extreme and expensive place to venture so there tend to be compelling reasons, often having nothing to do with the place itself. In Deb’s view, Antarctica is often the place people come to try to salvage a relationship, or to end one. The title My Last Continent refers to the goal of some Antarctic visitors to bag the ultimate travel experience, but it may also refer to Deb’s own sense that, having reached Antarctica, she has no need to explore others.
My Last Continent is also and maybe even chiefly a love story. In flashbacks, Deb tells of how her relation to another lover of Antarctica develops. Their mutual love of the continent becomes part of their own love as well as one of the obstacles to it.
Midge Raymond’s work has actually graced the pages of Escape Into Life in the past, and I’ll provide a link to her story here below. I will also include a link to a recent essay by Jonathan Franzen for The New Yorker about his own trip to Antarctica, which complements this novel by being told from the passenger’s point of view, although one who is every bit as interested in the bird life of Antarctica as Deb Gardner is.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.