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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #192: Allan Gordon


One of my favorite books when I was young was The Iceberg Hermit, by Arthur Roth. The protagonist first appears in The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon, an 1818 novella by Scottish writer James Hogg, and Roth's 1976 book is a retelling of those adventures for the adolescent reader. And I read it, many times.

Allan Gordon was a young Scot from Aberdeen who had been apprenticed to a mean tailor before escaping to sea at the age of twelve, becoming a cabin boy and then a deckhand on a whaling ship. In 1757 he was seventeen years old when his ship the Anne Forbes struck an iceberg near Greenland and sank with all hands. All hands except Gordon, who had been lookout atop the mast and thrown clear on the ice itself. He certainly would have died there, but the Anne Forbes had turned belly-up and floated to the surface to be trapped in the pack ice. Gordon cut his way through the hull and subsisted for a long time on ship's stores.

Eventually, Gordon leaves his sanctuary and encounters polar bears, indigenous peoples, and has a variety of icy adventures, all the while dreaming of his ribbon-girl Nancy back in Aberdeen. The book, while four decades old, approaches the people he encounters with surprising equanimity, with neither smug condescension nor romantic approbation. They simply are who they are, and do what they do. And without them, Gordon would likely have perished.

It's not a complicated story, basically a chilly Robinson Crusoe, with the same compelling mix of solitude and danger. Gordon shows the usual resourcefulness and determination, but his struggles are not merely physical. He suffers emotionally, especially early on during his privation, and that was eye-opening for a young reader. He was a hero, yet he wasn't perfect, he wasn't supernaturally tough or strong. He was just a kid, really, stuck in some ice, and he survived because he wanted to, because he decided to. That's always stayed with me.

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