In the shadow of an old Wisconsin silo, Blair Braverman ’11 swings her six-pound, wood-splitting maul. Pieces skitter across the lawn between the log home her partner built and the barn where she just cleaned out a stall for a litter of Alaskan husky puppies. It’s not wood she’s chopping, though. It’s frozen animal carcasses.
Blair Braverman portrait

Blair Braverman ’11

“Every day I look for something from the taxidermist,” she says, rooting around in a chest freezer in the barn. After rejecting a bag of rock-solid, wine-red mink flesh, then nixing the pale remains of trophy freshwater fish, she appraises a frozen soccer ball of marbled meat with an approving eye. “I don’t know what that is, but it looks like something Pepe would eat.”

Pepe is the mother of nine week-old sled-dog puppies, the foundation of a team Braverman is building to qualify for the 2018 Iditarod, the 1,000-mile grand prix of sled-dog races. Pepe, who has nursed the pups since their birth, is refusing to eat kibble and growing skinnier by the day. Hence Braverman’s quest for something extra special.

Swinging the maul in an arc and piling smaller chunks into a bowl, Braverman occasionally sniffs the mystery meat. “Bear? Hmm,” she says, unconvinced. Then, finally, “I know! It’s beaver!”

Dinner is served.

Braverman, 28, has been working with sled dogs for a decade—and writing about her experiences with them almost as long. Now her adventures in Arctic climes and her gift for description, scene-setting, and lyrical prose have her in the literary spotlight. Her first book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, was published by HarperCollins’s Ecco imprint in July. Outside magazine proclaimed Braverman’s book “a new classic.”

“This summer, readers have their pick of female narrators traversing both internal and external terrain. But few stand out as much as Blair Braverman’s Arctic memoir,” the Outside review said.

The personal stuff wasn’t going to be in the book when I started writing. Nobody talked me into that. It just kept sucking without it.”
—Blair Braverman ’11

Braverman Book - Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

The book is a giant step in a career that began on Mayflower Hill. Her writing while at Colby—including winning a bunch of writing competitions and publishing in national and regional newspapers and magazines—led to an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. A prestigious fellowship during grad school allowed her to work on material that became a book proposal, and the publisher’s advance gave her a couple of more years to get it ready for publication.

Part memoir, part journalism, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube ranges the north, from Arctic Norway to Alaskan glaciers to northern Wisconsin, propelled by intimate details of Braverman’s coming of age. It’s a tale of girl power amid winter adventures: teenagers mushing through an all-night blizzard in Finland, guides keeping stranded tourists happy as conditions deteriorate on the ice in Alaska (an experience recounted on This American Life), and a sled careening through the Wisconsin woods behind a team of dogs that could easily pull a truck out of a ditch.

But the book is also a probing look at the experience of a young woman coming to terms with sexuality and suffering abusive behavior and unwanted advances of men. In passages that are both honest and disturbing, Braverman explores the nuances and emotions, the doubt and shame of an adventurous and in some ways naïve high school girl struggling to understand the line between appropriate physical contact and sexual violence, especially in an unfamiliar environment.

A large part of the book is journalistic cinéma vérité, chronicling life in Mortenhals, a Norwegian village of 40 souls north of the Arctic Circle. At its heart is a fond tribute to an older man, Arild, who provides a counterbalance to all the creeps and who offers space for the young American to, in fact, find “home in the great white north,” as the book’s subtitle avers.

It’s material that Braverman has been working and reworking since her first-year English composition course in 2007. And the lyrical quality of the writing elevates it stylistically. You don’t have to care about Arctic adventure, environmental wonders, or quirky Norwegian villages to find beauty in its pages.

Braverman hopes enough readers will be entranced by her writing to finance her Iditarod dream, which may be her most quixotic yet. Fielding a dog team for the race costs about $50,000, she said, and only the winner breaks even: the first-place prize is $50,000.

She has been a dogsledder longer than she’s been a serious writer. Before Colby, she was a high school exchange student in Lillehammer, Norway, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, and she returned to Norway for a gap year at a dogsledding school in Mortenhals. She was also a rare female musher for a sled-dog operation on an Alaskan glacier.

In certain respects things got tougher when Braverman arrived on campus via Oregon and California (after her first stint in Alaska) and decided she was going to be a writer. While this isn’t an unusual aspiration for a Colby first-year student, it quickly became apparent that Braverman brought tools and exceptional commitment to the task. On-campus jaunts on skis were followed directly by hours in the library. She filled most of her creative writing minor through independent-study credits, as professors in environmental studies and writing took her under their wings.

“I often felt, especially when I was at Colby, that my goal in writing was to make work that people would read by choice,” she said. “It seemed like an almost unreachable standard to write something that people would read freely, not because they knew me.”

Swinging the maul in an arc and piling smaller chunks into a bowl, Braverman occasionally sniffs the mystery meat. “Bear? Hmm,” she says, unconvinced. Then, finally, “I know! It’s beaver!”

Braverman chops frozen game meat (supplied by a local taxidermist) to feed to one of her dogs

At her farm in Wisconsin, Braverman chops frozen game meat (supplied by a local taxidermist) to feed to one of her dogs, who needed added sustenance while nursing a litter of pups.

She needn’t have worried about that bar, said Assistant Professor of Writing Elisabeth Stokes, Braverman’s writing instructor and mentor. “I had her in composition her first year,” she said. “I knew right away.”

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus remembers Braverman’s intellectual adventurousness along with her need to get outdoors. Invited back to Colby for a conservation conference, Braverman, a vegan at the time, talked about learning to hunt with local men while in grad school in Iowa. Her perspective was so unexpected, Nyhus recalled. “She had everyone in the audience rapt, everybody reflecting on their own biases and perspectives. That’s a gift.”

Stokes saw one of the book’s themes—Braverman needing to persuade and prove to herself that she is a strong woman—play out at Colby in her writing. “She’s always been aware of what she’s capable of, but she’s also keenly aware of how much work it takes, and she’s never shied away from that,” Stokes said.

The Colby professor even credits Braverman for rekindling her own career writing for publication. “We started having more of a collegial relationship even before she left Colby,” Stokes said. “She was very encouraging, and she was part of the reason I started to submit my work.” A year ago their names appeared in the same paragraph in a Pacific Standard magazine piece about the best writing about Alaska; Stokes’s essays have been published widely, including in the New York Times.

When it came to choosing a graduate school, Braverman was sheepish telling Nyhus she was going to Iowa over an environmental program. But he wasn’t surprised that her love for the environment would undergird her writing and not vice versa. “Caged animal is maybe too strong, but she remains the one research assistant who was almost never around,” he said. “She needed not to be cooped up in Diamond. She wants to get outside and experience things.”

Though much of her master’s degree focused on lyrical essays and creative writing, Braverman said she found herself “pushing away from that and becoming more and more interested in journalism. Now that’s what compels me most—journalistic writing.”
“Everything that happens in Mortenhals is reported,” she said about her book. “It’s weird to hear that called a memoir. Everyone knew I was writing a book. I was conducting interviews all the time.”

“If you have even three dogs pulling, you can’t stop them if they don’t want to stop—and you can’t bail on the sled if you don’t want to be left alone in the wilderness without any of your gear.”
—Blair Braverman ’11

Blair---8-house

But ultimately she concluded that the journalism and the adventures weren’t enough to propel the narrative, so it became more about a tentative girl emerging as a strong woman. “The personal stuff wasn’t going to be in the book when I started writing,” she said. “Nobody talked me into that. It just kept sucking without it.”

And much of the book is revealingly—and even startlingly—personal. Besides the unsavory older men she encounters, the vicissitudes of her early sexual experience become material. It’s revelatory in ways that make it uncomfortable as well as poignant and literary.

How did she pull that off? “I had to pretend no one was going to read it—that it was a technical challenge in terms of structure,” she said. “I did not sell my book as a personal story. I wish I had, because I would have made more money, I’m sure. But I had no intention of writing that part.”

And what’s it like to share first-person stories of sexual initiations and abuse with, say, your family? “My parents read it and I didn’t hear back for two days, so I was terrified. And then I got this email.”

Her mother wrote, in part, that her daughter’s memoir “is a story to share with your daughters, that they may grow up to be as reflective and courageous as the author. All mothers should be so lucky.”

After that, Braverman recalls thinking, “I can handle anything else.’”

She remains clear-eyed about the likelihood of fame and fortune in the literary world. “I have no expectation of royalties,” she said. “Ninety percent of books don’t make back their advance. I want it to do well enough that I can sell another book.”

But that, too, takes work.

“One of the sobering things I discovered is that any book you’ve heard of has hired an independent publicist. That costs fifteen to twenty thousand dollars,” she said. “This winter it became clear I could either have a dog team or a publicist.”

She pulled out a notebook with a hand-lettered cover: “$20,000 Publicity Plan.” In it are hopes, strategies, and tactics, and in July they were starting to bear fruit: the review in Outside; O, The Oprah Magazine listing it as a must-read for summer; and a strong response on A.V. Club. The New York Times weighed in, saying the book is, “courageous and original as both a travel narrative and a memoir of self-discovery.”

Now living with her fiancé, Quince Mountain, a fellow Iowa M.F.A. student whom she converted from horseman to dogsledder, she’s found a home in the village of Mountain, Wisc., so small there’s no grocery store and no school. “People explained to me that if you’re going to live in Mountain you have to belong to a church or a bar. That’s pretty much remained true,” she said, having “joined” the Schoolhouse Bar.

This summer, readers have their pick of female narrators traversing both internal and external terrain. But few stand out as much as Blair Braverman’s Arctic memoir.”
Outside magazine on Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North

Blair Braverman ’11 behind her team of sled dogs

Blair Braverman ’11 behind her team of sled dogs led by Flame, left, and Donut. Braverman hopes her writing will finance a dog team for the Iditarod.

The village is at the south end of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where old farm fields are surrounded by expanses of multi-use northern woods with miles of trails for skiing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding. “You can basically go endlessly out of this yard,” she said at her home.

She sees bears and encountered a black wolf crossing the track while out behind her dog team. Though she worried, because teams are prone to freaking out if they see even a mouse, the wolf and the dogs barely reacted. “They both were like, ‘We can’t eat each other, so we really don’t even care.’”

Along with dogs and wolves, Braverman has found community in Mountain, both with women friends in town and with other area residents who keep dog teams.

That day on the farm in June the frozen meat morsels began to melt as Braverman delivered the delicacy to Pepe. For the first time all day, the dog jumped to her feet, sightless pups dangling from her teats as she pursued the greasy chunks across the tile floor. “She’s really going at it,” Braverman beamed, indulgent as a grandmother.

The scene contradicts the ethos of the dogsledder, who exists on the edge of disaster. “That’s hard for people to understand unless they’ve experienced it,” Braverman said. “If you have even three dogs pulling, you can’t stop them if they don’t want to stop—and you can’t bail on the sled if you don’t want to be left alone in the wilderness without any of your gear.”

The domesticity of puppies in the kitchen will likely lead to the adrenaline of a sled careening 1,100 miles through the Alaskan bush toward Nome. After the race Braverman will return to her other skill—crafter of words. There, too, she has a long and adventurous trail ahead.