Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book Review: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

I hate the cold. Hate it. And I live in a fairly temperate part of the country (North Carolina). Being trapped at the North Pole would be one of my nightmares. In fact, I don't even like reading these kinds of books at this time of year, preferring them in July when it's blazing hot. But I am so glad I read this! When I was a teenager, I remember watching a PBS miniseries about the actual explorers who were racing to reach the North Pole first and it was so gripping and heartbreaking, and this book really made me think back to that show.

It starts off a little slow. We're told about a different failed polar expedition aboard the Polaris, and how one of the men who participated in a rescue team, George De Long, was captivated by the polar region, and thought he knew what the Polaris captain had done wrong. It took several years and a while finding the right financial backer and the right ship, and of course the right crew (that was the biggest mistake on the Polaris where the captain was poisoned by his own crew), but De Long and 32 men set out in 1879 to try a new route, through the Bering Strait in the Pacific, to the North Pole. Bafflingly, they and many other eminent and intelligent men of the time, thought all the ice encountered in the region by whalers and previous explorers, was just an outer ring around a warm open sea (really going against every observation and logical conclusion), and so you could sail to the Pole. They were expecting to be penned in by the ice in the winter (which begins in September) but thought they would get spit out eventually on the other side. While that can happen (and a later explorer does successfully do this, but of course he was spit out in the Atlantic, not in a mythical open Arctic Sea), after two years, the crushing ice finally does in the ship, leaving the men to forage over land and open sea with sleds, small boats, and dogs, to try to find their way back to civilization.

It did take me a while to get into the book, when introducing all the characters, discussing previous explorations, getting the ship ready, discussing the odd benefactor newspaper mogul Bennett, but once they're on the boat in the ice, I because utterly fascinated. And one the boat went down, there was no way I could put the book down. Mr. Sides does a great job of creating tension. With nonfiction the problem normally is the outcome is known, and while any reader could google it and find out, the outcome of this event isn't common knowledge, so it was easy to be on the edge of my seat, hoping and wishing for luck to go their way. I do wish I hadn't skipped ahead and checked out the photo insert as it did give away one spoiler for me. However, it could have given away a much bigger spoiler and I appreciate very much that it doesn't. I wouldn't say it reads like fiction exactly, but it's pretty darn close, with tons of quotations from letters and journals. The crew of The USS Jeanette were brave and admirable men who deserve to be remembered. I am so glad that Mr. Sides has given them such respectful and literary treatment, as now a new generation of Americans will know who these brave men were.

I checked this book out of the library.

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