Love in the Arctic (Red Lantern Books, 1953)

Now that I have read about half of Hitt’s body of work, I decided it would be educational to look at his first novel — what I will assume is his first novel.  Love in the Arctic was published the same year, 1953, as I’ll Call Every Monday by Red Lantern Books; which one was issued first is unknown, or maybe they came out the same time.  Love in the Arctic, however, reads like it was written first.

From Brian Ritt’s biographical essay:

In order to support his family, he had to curtail his writing career for the next 6-8 years, taking a variety of odd jobs which barely paid the bills. He sold life insurance, roofing and siding, and frozen foods to stores. He worked for a local automotive firm and marketed a new type of sparkplug. He worked for a local radio station as a DJ and ad salesman. Altogether, he worked between 15 to 17 jobs, all the while pining to pursue the passion he felt he was born for.

“Oh, I might’ve done a few short stories which didn’t sell but I’m not counting them,” Orrie wrote. “A book was in the back of my mind and I was unable to shake it.”

And then the Iceland cometh.

Iceland???

Yes, Iceland.

“My next stop was Keflavik, Iceland, working at the airport hotel and, again, the pay could’ve been better,” Orrie wrote. “However, I found in Iceland what I wanted. Once I had learned my duties there was plenty of time to write. And this time it was a book.”

Hitt worked at the airport hotel for a year, and by the end of the year he’d written two more books.

[NOTE: In Arctic, someone mentions a former employee with so much free time, he wrote five novels while there.]

Throughout that year, Hitt had submitted all three books to his agent in New York. The agent’s responses, one after another, were discouraging; he claimed the books were unmarketable. It must have seemed like sophomore year all over again. But, as Hitt did with the old schoolmarm, he ignored his agent’s advice and got right back to work. But instead of pounding the typwriter keys, this time he pounded the pavement. He went back to New York and “made the rounds of publishers myself, receiving encouragement but no contracts.” Hitt did find one taker–a “vanity” publisher who wanted Hitt to pay them to publish the book. (He turned them down flatly.) Finally, he found a legitimate publisher who wanted his book and, “A few days later I had a royalty contract.”

The third book mentioned is Teaser, published in 1954 by The Woodford Press.  The dedication if for Hitt’s agent, noting that no one else would touch the novel.

Love in the Arctic is set in Keflavik, Iceland, the land of the midnight sun, a cold island spot with an American airport and a hotel, a small nearby town of native Icelanders, and not much else.  Many of the younger people are bastard children of Americans and Europeans, the fathers having left the pregnant women behind since World War II.  With Russia so nearby, the U.S. has an interest in the spot.

Steve Cannon has come here to work as a guard. He saw an ad in the paper. He’s a former roofing salesman. He’s running away from a bad divorce from Janey, who cheated on him.  He wants to get as far away from that life and the pain as he can, and Iceland seems to be pretty far away.

On his first day there, he has sex with a native girl, so we know this is a Orrie Hitt novel, and may be one reason why he had trouble finding a publisher.  The girl doesn’t ask for money, but asks for something–a coat, perhaps.  She looks through his stuff and takes a metal nail clipper as “a gift” for the sex.  Right off we get an idea about this culture and the nature of sex, the quid pro quo of a society far from the West.

Steve meets a lot of characters working at the hotel, the airport, and in the quonset hut he shares with several other men.  At a local dance, he meets blonde Christine Janisdoitter, single mother, who works as a waitress in the hotel.  He immediately takes a liking to her  but she plays hard to get.  Finally, one cold night, they share a bed to keep warm and things progress romantically.

“You’ve been nice to me,” she said. “You haven’t hit me around like some men hit their girls. Most of the men call the girls names, but you’ve always said good things to me.  And you don’t around me like I was man. You’re — nice, Steve.” (p. 134)

Steve’s job seems futile — he’s posted to guard a hanger containing two useless parts of an airplane.  Who would steal it around there?  He switches jobs to the hotel, where he is better suited.

While not the resort-type hotels Hitt usually writes about, this is still a hotel-novel, revealing the inner workings of how a hotel is run, from management to restaurant to house-keeping, with all the petty politics and sexual shenanigans and scams going on.  Hitt also paints a detailed picture, in an almost anthropological way, of a non-American culture:

Girls went into huts and girls stayed in huts and girls either left voluntarily or were tossed out of huts.  Men quarreled and fought over women and whiskey and anything else that seemed worth fighting about. A new guard clipped a native caught 6089 out the same day. The airport manager sent his wife home to get a divorce — it was said she was glad to […] The airport surgeon got drunk and fell on the ice and broke his arm, causing all surgical cases to be ignored […] The dentist left to the states to get his teeth filled, then sent a cable from New York that he was going into the army and wouldn’t return.  The school teacher got an emergency leave to go home and buy some textbooks. t was rumored that she had gone to get fixed up, but nobody would say for certain. Somebody found the body of a new-born baby lying in the snow and the native policemen crawled all over the airport, looking like a bunch of sea captains inspecting a battle cruiser. It was soon learned, however, that the baby had been the property of an airline passenger who had had a miscarriage and the hospital had merely failed to have the corpse destroyed. (p. 76)

One day in the mail, Steve gets a letter from his ex-wife, Janey. He told no one where he was going, especially her, so how did she find him?  Seems she noticed in a discarded newspaper the ad he tore out; she tracked the ad down and put two-and-two together.  The letter claims she still loves him, that she regrets cheating on him, how she wished he would have forgiven her, how she wishes they tried to salvage their marriage.

Then, a month or so later, he gets a big surprise:  off the daily transport plane comes none other than Janey!  She has taken an accounting job in the hotel.  She has come all the way to Iceland to reconcile. But by now Steve has something going on with Chris and Janey notices this and is not happy.  But what can he do?

Steve doesn’t know what to make of this.  If living in Iceland wasn’t surreal enough, now his ex-wife is haunting him. Then Janey tells him they aren’t divorced, she never processed the paperwork while in Reno, Nevada.  She’s still his wife. He’s in a nightmare, and the only light is Christine.

Surrounding the events are the politics of the Cold War. Feeling the U.S. must “protect” its interest in Iceland, the army comes in to take over the airport; this means the civilian workers are no longer needed, and have to go back to the states.

This is an interesting novel in many ways — as Hitt’s early work, as a look at Americans during the Cold War in another country, as  study of social life in a remote part of the world.  It’s a novel with many flaws, though — it moves slow, there’s too much pointless banter between characters.  This book would be fine with 1/3 of it cut out.

Steve doesn’t jumble three women like many Hitt heroes, but two; there’s no crime elements and little conflict, other than Steve dealing with his wife and his lover.  These are reasons why this never went to paperback.

A decent read.

One Response to “Love in the Arctic (Red Lantern Books, 1953)”

  1. […] Love in the Arctic by Orrie Hitt Reviwed here. […]

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