The subject of place has long obsessed Solnit. Her 1994 Savage Dreams ties the shadow histories of the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite National Park into the ongoing landscape wars of the American West, reading them as America’s Eden and Armageddon, bookends to the conquest of the West. In subsequent books, she has tackled, among other things, a history of walking, the landscape photography of Eadweard Muybridge, and the gentrification of her native San Francisco during the dot-com boom. Her writing is often described as peripatetic: she travels not just through places but also the imagination, makes surprising leaps and connections, and returns with the unexpected conclusions.
This leap into the distance becomes literal when Solnit receives an invitation to be a writer-in-residence at Iceland’s Library of Water. The offer comes when the situation with her mother is at its worst, she has just ended a relationship, in part over her mother, and a routine medical checkup reveals a precancerous growth. The door to Iceland is one she made herself; a young man, shortly before he passes from leukemia, buys one of her books for his first love, who in turn gives it to her own mother. The two women travel to San Francisco for the opening of a friend’s art exhibit, where Solnit meets them and tells of her yearning to visit the far north.
She boards the plane to Iceland shortly after a surgery and a friend’s death. Early in the book she writes, “Distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.” Iceland is the refuge in which she convalesces. As she is recuperating, she does not take the long walks she favored in her earlier books. Instead, she stays close to the library and reads up on Iceland’s histories and folklore. In this far north, in this land of perennial ice, she finds a story that “had at its center questions about how to tell and how to listen.” […]