Above All Things follows the mountaineers of Britain’s 1924 Mount Everest expedition. In particular, it’s about the relationships between the men who dared to climb in conditions unfit for humans and about the people they left behind, back closer to sea level. If you don’t know much about this expedition or George Mallory, I urge you to read about them after you’ve read this book. It’ll be more fun that way.
Everest As Uncharted Territory
The Mount Everest of decades past had more in common with the deep, dark unknown of the ocean or the fiery belly of a volcano than with the rest of the earth that we know, inhabit, and call home. Today, Everest remains deadly and somewhat alien, but it’s not so unknown. Expensive commercial packages that include trained guides, state-of-the-art equipment, and an ample supply of food and oxygen enable novices to make the dangerous climb. This has turned Everest into a crowded, trash-ridden, feces-covered place. Each year, thousands ascend for bragging rights, meandering among those who remain, frozen in place, if not in time.
It’s hard to imagine such crowding—and, frankly, such comfort—when reading Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. In 1924, Everest is uncharted territory, an untamed beast. Rideout forces you to consider how scary and desolate the uncharted part must have been. Mountaineer George Mallory and the others don’t only have to survive the mountain’s bitter cold with inferior equipment. They also have to climb with no map to guide them. Being first has its drawbacks. Worse, some who climb already have failed attempts haunting them. Rideout brilliantly communicates the climbers’ anxieties, leaving you with a sort of claustrophobic panic as each character’s life depends on watches, compasses, and gut feelings.
Above All Things is detail-oriented, and Rideout does much to place readers in the time period and draw attention to the expedition’s primitive equipment.
George woke with his feet numb from a small drift of snow that had gathered in the tent near them. The flap had come undone in the night and the canvas rumbled and snapped, almost tore apart as the wind ripped at the material. The roar of it was deafening, but they weren’t snowbound. Not yet.
As a fan of stories about people struggling to survive—perhaps I’m a sadist?—I expected to enjoy following the mountaineers every snowy step of the way. But I didn’t expect to care about them so deeply.
Many historical fiction novels are heavy on information, but light on character depth. Rideout avoids this by telling the story through the characters’ relationships. Every success or failure the mountaineers experience on Everest is influenced by their sometimes close, sometimes strained relationships with one another, or by their memories—and vivid hallucinations as the air thins—of friends, family, and lost loves half a world away.
Even now he felt torn. Part of him hated being separated from Ruth and the children. And another part hated himself for being so damn sentimental. It was weak. Still, there was the luxury of freedom this far from home. He felt different away from Ruth, away from everyday life, and he was never quite sure which person he was, which he wanted to be.
Rideout gives voice to those left behind, too, with some chapters dedicated to the first-person perspective of Ruth Mallory, George’s wife. Ruth, who is listless and forlorn in George’s absence, is not always fun to read; she is a woman with no identity outside of her husband and, to a lesser extent, her children. However, having read Rideout’s closing notes about Ruth, I think Ruth may be accurately portrayed here and simply a product of her time and status. Her life is small and dull, but the characters that surround her—men and other women from her and George’s rather incongruous life together—mostly make up for it. And though Ruth can be frustrating, she adds to George’s complexity and to the narrative overall.
The final third of the book is where Rideout really finds her pacing. You grow more and more nervous the closer the team makes it to the summit. With each mistake or sacrifice, you want them to turn back, but they don’t. They’re blinded by it—whatever Everest is to them. In George Mallory’s famous, actual words, they have to climb “because it’s there.”
Above All Things left me with the hollow sweetness that comes from finishing a good book, and I’ve since thought a lot about the expedition and Rideout’s interpretations of the people who went on it. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the impetus behind wanting to conquer mountains, but I do have a greater appreciation for those who first climbed Everest. After all, you can’t help but be in awe of people who argue over the “sportsmanship” of using oxygen to survive.
Quotes from Above All Things
Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past here there be monsters and the arched backs of the sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay.
“It’s just that the bad turns make for better stories. No one wants to hear about the hike you took where nothing happened.”
“Then the coolie’s hands thawed,” he went on. “I don’t know which was worse. The freezing or the thawing.” Both were terrible reminders that the body was nothing but pulpy meat, easily ruptured, broken, frozen, thawed. That was the worst of it, knowing the myriad ways a body could be destroyed.
Christmas traditions are far less organic than we are led to believe. Using countless sources, from diary excerpts, to almanacs, illustrations, and children’s books, author Stephen Nissenbaum unravels the mysteries of Santa, Christmas gift-giving, and more in The Battle for Christmas. How did winter misrule evolve into the child-centered domestic affair we know so well today?
Christmas Celebrations or Class Warfare?
Having read reviews beforehand, I knew The Battle for Christmas covered more than reindeer and tinsel, but the scope of the book still surprised me. Nissenbaum considered every angle from which to view Christmas—the politics that shaped it; the religion that resisted, then reinforced, it; and the economies that commodified it. Nissenbaum’s writing is dry and slow at times, but his research is impressive, and you have to admit the topic’s interesting. Beware, though. This book may turn you into that person who ruins all the fun at Christmas parties.
The Battle for Christmas is made up of a preface, seven (overly long) chapters, and an epilogue. The first two chapters are the most informative. They cover the early history of Christmas in America, wherein you learn the holiday was not some quaint cultural import, be it from Anglo pagans or Christians, but rather a carefully crafted modification of an existing winter “misrule” enjoyed by the working poor and begrudgingly tolerated by the wealthy. Some of the wealthiest, men we might now call Scrooges and Grinches, created the modern Santa and other Christmas lore.
While other chapters offer interesting and oftentimes amusing tidbits of information about gift-giving, Christmas trees, and holiday charity, these initial chapters were the ones I found not only enlightening (e.g., Puritans tried to ban Christmas!), but also infuriating. Reading about wealthy society’s contempt for the poor they disenfranchised will have you laughing in disbelief and maybe even feeling a little nauseated. The subtle, and at other times blatant, class warfare documented in this book makes you realize how far American society has come. It also makes you realize how much work there is left to do—if you didn’t realize that already.
And in 1822 (the year “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared), John Pintard explained to his daughter just why he was opposed to the new state constitution adopted that year, a constitution that gave men without property the right to vote: “All power,” Pintard wrote, “is to be given, by the right of universal suffrage, to a mass of people, especially in this city, which has no stake in society. It is easier to raise a mob than to quell it, and we shall hereafter be governed by rank democracy…. Alas that the proud state of New York should be engulfed in the abyss of ruin.”
In short, [this “small group of antiquarian-minded New York gentlemen”] felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York.
One thing I enjoy about Nissenbaum’s work is his use of primary sources. You don’t merely learn about the history of Christmas this way. You also learn about the individuals who wrote about the holiday’s inception and the surrounding culture and events of the time. It’s through these quotes and excerpts on day-to-day life that you’re able to watch the winter holidays evolve with each passing generation. By the mid 1800s, a mere 30 years after Pintard’s above statement to his daughter, Christmas seems rather familiar:
But nowadays, things are different: “‘There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.'”
While reading, I couldn’t decide whether it was comforting or disheartening to know Christmas has been a deeply commercialized holiday from the beginning and that people are saying the same things about it today that they did a century and a half ago. It would seem Americans, in particular, have always struggled to find meaning in manufactured traditions and gifts. If the history of this book tells you anything, it might be that such American yearning for authenticity around the holidays is unlikely to change any time soon.
Even people who fervently believe in market capitalism sometimes blame it for cheapening Christmas. But what this book has suggested is that there never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism. It has argued that the domestic Christmas was the commercial Christmas—commercial from its earliest stages, commercial at its very core. Indeed, the domestic Christmas was itself a force in the spread of consumer capitalism.
The Battle for Christmas should probably be shorter: Nissenbaum is far too eager to share all his research. Small flaws aside, though, you can learn a lot from this book about the supposed sacredness of traditions and the manipulation of culture and history. We would all do well to take our rituals with a grain of salt and be open to changing them. And why not? It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve been altered.
Quotes from The Battle for Christmas
Indeed, at the time Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in 1822, he himself owned five slaves.
Newsboys were drawn from the poorest classes of large cities; often they were homeless–in fact, the word newsboy was sometimes used interchangeably with homeless boy or street arab. … Newsboys may have been a new phenomenon in the late 1830s, but they fit a social and demographic profile that had long been associated with rituals of Christmas misrule: They were poor and youthful males. So it is no wonder that they took to acting up with particular intensity during the holiday season.
Alcott’s program was controversial from the beginning–for example, when his pupils misbehaved badly, Alcott would punish them by ordering them to whip him!