How to Survive in the North - Review

Luke Healy’s graphic novel How to Survive in the North combines two stories of isolation to create a stunning look at human emotion.

The plot switches back and forth between two separate stories. The first is the true story of an Arctic expedition in the 1900s. Canadian explorer Robert Bartlett attempts to guide a crew up to the North. Included on his ship is Ada Blackjack, an Inuit woman who needs the money to help her sick son. A hundred years later, Sully, a university professor, is sent on sabbatical after being caught in the middle of an affair with one of his students. While on sabbatical, Sully begins to research the expedition. 

Healy switches back and forth between the two separate stories to make a statement about loneliness and resilience. He creates a distinct contrast between the Arctic explorers’ battle against the elements and Sully’s struggle with himself. However, in doing this, the Irish-born author shows how while the conditions the protagonists face are not the same, the emotions they struggle with are not all that different.

The book is easy to read. It’s also beautifully illustrated, using pinks and greens to fill in many of the images. Healy relies just as much on his images to tell the story as he does on the writing. Many of the boxes don’t even contain text. Because of this, it’s also a fast read. 

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful one though. In Canada’s 150th anniversary, How to Survive in the North gives a powerful look at a part of the country’s history that isn’t as celebrated: the brutal reality of arctic exploration. The adversity Ada Blackjack faces as the only women and one of the only Inuit aboard the ship is highlighted in a way that feels starkly real. But the graphic novel also serves as a reminder that while some things change over time, our reactions to unwanted emotion doesn’t change all that much.