It is easy to compare Millman to Bill Bryson; both writers travel the back roads and write with humor and grace about what they find there. Although, that’s not entirely accurate, as Millman prefers places with no roads at all. He is drawn to the remote, almost uninhabitable outposts at the rim of the human sphere, the last places. In Last Places he is following (roughly) the migration of the Vikings from Europe, hopping from island to island across the North Sea.
As he travels he meets people. He observes early on that when travelers meet people they know it is only a temporary thing, that they will soon part ways and never meet again. This allows an easy camaraderie, a sharing of intimate knowledge that one would never tell a person you will meet again. I wrote somewhere that when travelers meet they become episodes in the other’s life, chapters in a story with no clear beginning or end. Perhaps those chapters will eventually build into something larger, a structure strong enough to bear themes or (heavier yet) a story.
Millman has many such encounters as he tramps between fjords across lichen-covered rocks. The people he meets have stories and myths to tell, and Millman peppers his accounts with retellings of local legends and folklore. The stories are retold with humor (for they are funny), but with no trace of new-world condescension. When one man points out a rock formation that used to be his grandmother’s older sister, the story is true to Millman in a deeper sense than that of verifiable fact. The stories are an integral part of the last places and the people who live there.
Of course, the noise and clutter of technological life reaches even up there, and the result, to Millman’s mind, is not pretty. Many small towns were depopulated in the 1960’s, their residents relocated by government fiat into larger towns where they could provide labor for the growing commercial fishing fleets and where government provision of social services would be simpler. Lost was the point that the people being relocated weren’t terribly interested in receiving those services. In his travels he meets families who live entirely off the meat of seals; they can no longer sell the pelts because of boycotts, and so they feed them to their dogs. (One such man wrote to a famous movie star explaining the situation, but never got a response. He figured she probably was illiterate.) Millman is watching the death of not one but many remote cultures, and he doesn’t much like what is replacing it. Nuug, Greenland sounds like a really awful place.
Millman is a very good writer. His descriptions often use words that are unconventional but surprisingly apt. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but it is similar at times to the serendipitous word choices made by my Czech friends when speaking English, unconventional connections that reveal unexpected images. Millman speaks Icelandic and Greenlandic and perhaps other languages as well, and I wonder if knowing those tongues has expanded his use of English as well. That’s not to say that Millman’s word use is accidental — there are times that same unusual word or image will come back later, an echo of its previous use, connecting distant parts of the story. I wanna do that.
Traveling, he says at one point, is about delaying getting to your destination as long as possible. (I’d like to quote exactly, but there’s no way I’ll find that remark now.) When you reach your destination there is no mystery left, no anticipation. In this I think we are kindred spirits, he and I, although he is not a big fan of travel by automobile. Each of us is looking for something, though. It’s not a place, yet it can be found by traveling. It is a moment that we seek, a brief tranquility when the noise is gone and the clutter and jumble are forgotten, when something resembling clarity takes its place. It is the time when it would be OK if a Polar Bear rose up from the misty lake and ate you.
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