Above All Things
A New York Times Editor's Choice
1924. George Mallory is arguably the last great British explorer, having twice tried—and failed—to conquer Mount Everest. The mountain has haunted him, but his attempts have captivated the hearts of a nation desperate to restore its former glory after World War I. Yet George has sworn to his wife, Ruth, that he will not mount a third attempt. He will remain with her and their three children instead of again challenging the unreachable peak.
Then, one afternoon, Ruth reads a telegram addressed to George: “Glad to have you aboard again.” And with this one sentence, the lives of the Mallorys, and the face of the nation, are irrevocably changed.
A beautifully rendered story about the need for redemption and the quest for glory, Above All Things is a captivating blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction. It is a heartbreaking tale of obsession, sacrifice, and what we do for love and honor.
“Part love-story, part high-octane adventure, this historical novel about doomed Everest climber George Mallory is a tough one to put down.” —People
“[An] absorbing, book-club ready first novel. A-” —Entertainment Weekly
“[A]s heart-pounding as anything in Into Thin Air—and the tension is lamost unbearable, even if we know the outcome. . . . Above All Things, finally, rises to the historic, even mythological occasion. Rideout’s powerful prose about a tragic, brutal end will ahunt you.” —USAToday.com
“Rideout does a brilliant job.” —The New York Observer“ ‘Because it’s there.’ With just three words, George Mallory explained why explorers do what they do. Yet beyond these words, volumes have been left unsaid. With Above All Things, Tanis Rideout finally fills in this void, illuminating one of the great tragic adventure stories of the modern-day age. It’s a fantastic read.” —David Grann, New York Times-bestselling author of The Lost City of Z
“This magnificent novel, at once rugged and sensual, elaborates on George Mallory’s assault on Everest in 1924, the ones who went, the ones who waited. Deeply felt, richly imagined, immaculately styled, and utterly compelling, Above All Things takes us to the heights of human experience and endurance, both in physical fortitude and erotic longing. Rideout brings us to the summit and back down, shaken but somehow saved by grace.” —Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife and Heading Out to Wonderful
“Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things is truly mesmerizing, a powerful weaving of the tensions and heartaches of a marriage in conflict with an obsession. It is the story of British climber George Mallory’s third scaling of the walls of the world’s highest mountain, and it is brilliantly told. It will take you up the slopes of Mount Everest, a climb so vividly described, you will almost feel the biting wind, the intense cold, the great drama of an historic event. But this is more than an adventure tale. Above All Things takes the reader into the hearts of both Mallory and his wife as they struggle to understand each other and their own conflicted yearnings. A deeply satisfying blend of truth and imagination that stands out from the crowd.” —Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker
“A love story, a tale of adventure, and a study in obsession all at once, Above All Things is simply breathtaking. With Tanis Rideout’s debut, a major new voice in fiction arrives.” —Joseph Boyden, author of Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road
"...George Mallory is the subject of this knockout first novel from a Canadian poet. The author has exhilaratingly imagined the British climber's third and final attempt to reach the mountain's summit ... creating an atmosphere as authentic as in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.... Book group alert! Rideout has written a superb addition to the fictional biography genre popularized by novels like Loving Frank and The Paris Wife. Buy it. Recommend it. Your patrons will thank you." —Library Journal, starred review
“This vivid, assured, and confident debut novel scales great heights of obsession and desire, both on the face of Mount Everest and in the loving bond between doomed explorer George Mallory and his wife, Ruth…. Rideout offers a gripping account of the expedition. The author’s accomplished depiction of the harsh and beautiful Himalayan heights … pushes the reader forward in a gripping adventure narrative, while Ruth’s own longings and fears offer a counterpoint of a more settled but no less intensely sensual interior landscape.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"With a gripping, 'you are there' realism, Rideout’s powerful prose evokes the scalpel-like sting of arctic winds and the bone-shattering cold of frigid mountain nights. Impeccably researched, Rideout’s vividly authentic debut historical novel is a paean to the ability of love to conquer all but the highest mountains." —Booklist
George and Ruth Mallory: From Myth to Fact to Fiction
One of the enduring mysteries of the twentieth century is the question of whether George Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, were the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, twenty-nine years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s triumphant expedition. On June 8, 1924, Mallory and Irvine were last spotted climbing “with incredible alacrity” toward the summit of Everest before they were “enveloped in cloud.” They were never seen again. Since then, climbers and non-climbers alike have wondered what happened to them during the hours of their legendary final attempt to conquer the summit.
I was first introduced to the myth of George Mallory while working at a camp outfitters store, and from the very start I was hooked. Mallory was, quite simply, the last of the classic, English gentlemen explorers – an athlete, a scholar, a writer with ties to the Bloomsbury Group who counted Maynard Keynes, James Strachey, and Duncan Grant amongst his intimates. I have always been fascinated by the sheer ambition of the 1924 expedition, by the degree of optimism and obsession that the summit attempts must have necessitated, and by the men who willingly endured the discomfort and pain of freezing temperatures and the many dangers of extreme altitudes in nothing more than Burberry tweeds.
But early on, too, I wondered what it would mean to be married to such a man as George Mallory. What would it be like to be left behind for almost six months at a time with nothing but long-delayed letters to answer your worries? How would you fill your days? How would you cope with knowing that your husband might not come home?
Eventually, I had the chance to find out what life as George Mallory’s wife was like for myself. Well, as close as one can some eighty years after his disappearance.
Cambridge was the first stop on my research trip to England, because it was George’s old stomping grounds; it was where he went to Magdalene College and climbed its towers, where he had his early love affairs, and where, ultimately, he had left behind his wife, Ruth, and his three children on his final expedition to Everest.
It was at Magdalene College that I would have the chance to read the letters George and Ruth had exchanged over their entire relationship – from his first love poem to her to his last letter from Everest. But before I could read their letters, I had to pass Dr. Luckett. With its dusty tomes and shafts of light filtering through leaded windows, the library at Magdalene College looks like a movie set for an old English college library – and Dr. Luckett, the Samuel Pepys Librarian, with his cane and mane of gray hair, could have come straight from central casting. He asked me about my book, about my thoughts on George and what might have happened to him. It might not have been a test, but it felt like it.
He explained to me that the Samuel Pepys Library was the official repository for all the Mallory personal papers. He apologized for the papers they didn’t have, explaining some letters that he thought should reside at the Library had been retained by the Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club – organizations I’d be visiting later, and that together had formed the Mount Everest Committee, which had arranged and supported the Everest expeditions during the 1920s.
Then he said, “I suppose you would like to see the letters?”
“Of course.” I said, gamely, though I wasn’t even sure which letters he meant.
Dr. Luckett opened a large leather book he’d been carrying and slipped out a plastic envelope, which he handed to me. “Go ahead.”
I pulled out a few sheets of thin paper. They were folded, their edges worn, dirtied. I looked at the first one. I knew this letter; I’d seen it in books about Mallory. These were the papers that had been found on George’s body when it was discovered in 1999 – letters, receipts, lists of oxygen bottles. My throat caught. I’d already been living with George and Ruth and Sandy in my head for more than a year. I had often joked to friends that if it was possible to be in love with someone who had died some eighty years before, then I was certainly in love with George Mallory. And these were the documents he had carried with him when he’d died. I teared up a little. This was to happen to me over and over again throughout this first of three research trips to England, as I sought out as much information as I could about the real George and Ruth.
There is something unsettling about reading a couple’s private letters. Here they all were – love poems George had written to Ruth, confessions Ruth had written to George (often misspelled) about her worries of not being a suitable parent. And always, always, this lilting love that ebbed and flowed but never disappeared: My darling, George wrote to Ruth before they were married, I’m longing for you. Oh! why aren’t you here – I would kiss your lips and look into your eyes and you, you, you!
There were flashes of jealousy and desperation: while George was in France during the First World War, Ruth, seeming to intuit their future separations, wrote, I love you and you love me, and that ought to be happiness enough for a lifetime but I do want you and want to live together all the time and share thoughts and joys and sorrows and we can’t apart as we can together. There was a lot of hope. It’s all there in his final words to her: Darling, I wish you all the best I can – that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this – with the best news, which will also be the quickest. It is 50 to 1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet to do ourselves proud. Best love to you. Your ever loving, George.
In their letters, George and Ruth were real and complicated people, even to each other. As Ruth put it in a letter to a close friend after George’s death, you share George with me, the pain and the joy. I never owned him. I never even wanted to. We all had our own parts of him. My part was more tender and nearer than anyone else’s but it was only my part. And now, I hoped to be able to claim some part of him, too.
This was the ephemera a life leaves behind, a love leaves behind.
In writing a work of fiction based on historical figures, you have to write your own rules: you have to decide how faithful to be to the known record and make tough choices about what to keep in, what to leave behind. George and Ruth’s letters allowed me to see who they were beyond the tragic hero and his deserted, dedicated wife – the roles in which historians have long cast them. Being able to see them as they were, to hear them speak in their own words and in their private moments, gave me the freedom to allow them to be who they needed to be on the page.
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