Tuesday, August 5, 2014

a rollicking good yarn that happens to be true: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides

Doubleday, 2014
454 pp


It wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that I devoured this book:  it was about 1 pm yesterday when the book arrived and I stopped what I was doing to open it;  it was 9:30 a.m. this morning that I finished it.  I actually read it throughout the night, and turned the last page during breakfast.  a) It's about polar exploration,  probably my favorite nonfiction reading topic in the universe,  b) it's by Hampton Sides, who has not let me down yet with any of his books, and c) it's just so engrossing that I couldn't stop reading it. I'm pretty tired and cranky right now, but what the hell -- it was so worth it.

Once again Hampton Sides has proven that he is not only a master of his topic but also a master of storytelling.   In the Kingdom of Ice recalls the story of an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole that began in 1879, commanded by George Washington DeLong and  backed by New York Herald  publisher James Gordon Bennett, who had some time earlier sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa as a major press stunt. Along with a number of scientists of the day, both Bennett and DeLong were proponents of a widely-circulated, widely-believed theory about the  "open polar sea," an idea postulating that a warm-water current flowed through the Arctic:
"The weather wasn't especially cold at the North Pole, at least not in summer. On the contrary, the dome of the world was covered in a shallow, warm, ice-free sea whose waters could be smoothly sailed, much as one might sail across the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. This tepid Arctic basin teemed with marine life -- and was, quite possibly, home to a lost civilization."
This open polar sea was "routinely depicted" on cartographer maps, and labeled as such across the top of the globe. Never mind that no one had actually seen it; as the author notes,
"Fixing it on maps had fixed it in people's minds. Like Atlantis or El Dorado, it was a beautiful vision based on legends, rumors, and tenuous scraps of information. Layer by layer, decade by decade, scientists and thinkers had contributed to the plausibility, the probability, and finally the certainty of this chimerical notion." 
While the open polar sea had its skeptics, De Long believed that if he could only find a "portal," a "gap in the ice" that ringed the "warm-water basin" right about the 80th parallel where other explorers had faltered, he would have no problems getting to the North Pole.  Bennett met with and received "a full set of charts and maps of the Arctic"  from Dr. August Petermann, a cartographer in Germany who had himself never been to the Arctic, but who believed that the "thermometric gateway" could be reached by approaching the Pole via the Bering Strait -- and that by doing it this way, the Pole could be reached in one summer.  Thus began the

from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Jeannette_with_crew.jpg

voyage of the USS Jeanette, which left San Francisco in 1879 with the backing of the U.S. Navy and a crew of some thirty-plus people with  DeLong as the commander, and which within only a very short time got stuck in the polar ice off of Wrangel Island and forced by nature to drift  in the ice floes for nearly two years.  The book details the journey of the Jeanette, along with all that the crew had to endure not only as they sat stuck in the ice, but also afterwards when they were forced to abandon their ship -- which would make the two-year ice drift seem like good times in retrospect.  In and around that harrowing story, the author also provides a look at America approaching, at, and just after its 100-year mark as a country, the use of  journalistic sensationalism, the people left behind once the Jeanette left on its mission, and ultimately, the efforts to provide a rescue for the icebound crew.

I seriously can't do this book the justice it deserves, but In the Kingdom of Ice is an absolutely phenomenal story told by a master storyteller, and it deserves as wide of a reading audience as possible.  Even readers who might not  normally be excited about the history of polar exploration would love this book -- the story is harrowing enough, but Mr. Sides highlights the humanity and the sheer bravery of these heroic men facing the unendurable in one of the most unforgiving environments in the world.  The book literally reads like a novel, complete with cliffhangers, moments for rejoicing, and above all, page-turning scenes making it impossible to set the book down.  It's an ultimate true "rollicking adventure" story, one that should be on everyone's reading list.  To answer other reader criticism, yes, there's a lot of detail involved, but none of it is wasted space or used as padding as so often seems to be the case. I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- on the favorites list of 2014.

 someone should get in touch with Ken Burns -- this would make a fascinating PBS special.