“Sur” by Ursula Le Guin

“But then, the backside of heroism is often rather sad; women and
servants know that. They know also that the heroism may be no
less real for that.  But achievement is smaller than men think.  
What is large is the sky, the earth, the sea, the soul.”

This insight, along with full description of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, is destined for obscurity. Or so we are told by our narrator, writing from a “very quiet suburb of Lima.” We readers are among the few who are privy to her heroism: organizing and leading an expedition to 90˚ South, a place from which every direction is North.  We learn that a team of nine women were the first expedition ever to reach the South Pole, beating Roald Amundsen and his boys there by about two years.  But it’s a secret.  There is no flag for the ladies of the Southern Party; in December 1911, Amundsen’s team staked the Norwegian flag and dubbed the south pole “King Haakon VII’s Plateau.”

In their very womanhood, the voyagers of Sur upend our assumptions of what an adventure story should be.  Gone is the stoicism and seriousness.  In its place is a particularly feminine perspective on the tough and deadly course south toward the end of the world.

It is no accident that our narrator is an avid reader of Antarctic adventure tales.  Though she admits “having had no training in any science, nor any opportunity for such training,” (presumably because of her gender), she tells us that tales of previous expeditions of men “filled me with longing to see with my own eyes that strange continent. . . the desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see – no more, no less.”

It is with the prodding and encouragement of friends that the dream becomes a reality. Among the nine women who travel south, there is little animosity.  Teamwork, encouragement, and communication lead them south in surprisingly cheery spirits.  The typical competitiveness and suspicion that often dominates stories of men on a long voyage are present, but they are usually directed towards the patronizing male Captain and crew who refuse to endorse a trip south from base camp.

The women soldier on through frostbite, blinding sun, subzero temperatures, sickness, and even an unplanned pregnancy. When half of their party arrives at “90˚ Camp,” they do not leave a trace. Safely back to civilization, they keep their achievement a secret between themselves and close confidants. Their heroism is in their deeds as well as their silence, which leaves us space to believe that we are heroes, too.


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