Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!


 This month, Judith reviews The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

A 4000 mile trek from Bellingham, Washington to the Arctic Circle – that is the story of The Sun is a Compass, a title which refers to the ways in which birds use the sun to navigate their paths. This is an adventure story despite, or perhaps because of, its many pages of complete tranquility.  Caroline Van Hemert, the author, begins this tale as a Ph.D. student in ornithology, bored and frustrated with research which requires her to dissect the layers of bird beak hour after hour, a task which goes against what she feels is her nature, having been raised to explore the outdoors when bored. Pat her boyfriend, soon to become husband, is an artist, a carpenter-builder who sympathizes with her plight and ultimately agrees to her plan to trek to the Arctic. He builds them rowboats and off they go.

What is most striking about this memoir is the clarity and directness with which Caroline writes about their relationship to each other and to the natural world. This book is never sentimental or sensationalistic even though things go horribly wrong, as, for example, Caroline and Pat nearly starve waiting for a resupply gone awry, and they are often faced with legions of unbearable mosquitoes. Much of the adventure comes from the sheer scope and scale of what they see and feel; tundra swans fly over by the thousands or they wake to realize they had unwittingly placed their tent in a thoroughfare for 1000s of migrating caribou; and then they find a hummingbird that seems frozen and lifeless until warmed in Caroline’s palm.   

And they startle upon mammals – wolves, coyote, bobcat, caribou; bears --polar bears, (yes, real polar bears) and grizzly sows with their cubs that are more often than not merely curious; and a gigantic whale boneyard.

At the end of the trek, Caroline’s father says,  “I don’t think you know what you just did.”   And the author’s moving response is that it what she has done has “less to do with the number of miles than with the clarity six months in the wilderness has offered. The peace that comes from letting go. The certainty that comes from being loved.”