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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Book Review: Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, narrated by Simon Prebble

I went to Antarctica last month. Right after I got home, my hold on the audiobook of Endurance came in. Now, you might think (as I initially had) that it would be better to read a book like this before going, in preparation and as research. But I am glad the popularity of the title made me wait until after! Only when you've actually been to the frozen continent can you truly appreciate what Shackleton and his crew went through. They didn't have giant parkas and fancy gloves from REI with little pockets that you could slip one of those heat packs into. They had wool and Burberry and reindeer-pelt boots.

 But let's back up. The South Pole had been achieved by Amundsen already (even though Scott's deadly expedition got more press). So what was Shackleton to do? He strove for a more impressive feat--crossing the entire continent from one side to the other (which wasn't achieved until 30 years later, and with the help of tracked vehicles, not dogsleds.) Having read a book about the harrowing crossing of Australia (a continent 1/3 the size of Antarctica), I was already skeptical the minute he announced this, even if I hadn't already been aware of the outcome of this trip. Shackleton had pretty bad luck at the start of the trip, and his ship got encased by ice quite early on, and well before they got anywhere near land. Luckily his ship was great, he was well-stocked, and even though his interviews were brief and seemed cursory, he hired an excellent and well-balanced crew (with only one stowaway). This had been expected (except for the early and far from land bit) and so they weren't too concerned. They camped out for the winter and planned to escape in the spring and hope to get closer so they could start the actual expedition part of the trip. But it was not to be. The ship never got free, and was eventually crushed into splinters. So the crew (and some dogs) were stuck with three life boats, on a large ice flow, and at that point they had to abandon the original plan, as the only option now was to try to rescue everyone.

Mr. Lansing was the Jon Krakauer of his day. I couldn't believe this book was 50 years old. It didn't read old-fashioned at all, and he managed, like Krakauer, to inject suspense and tension into historic events when I already knew the outcome, which is an impressive feat of writing. The book was riveting and, despite being over 10 hours, I listened to the whole thing in two days. I also had moments, particularly in the beginning, where I almost experienced deja vu and I wondered if I'd already read the book but no, I saw the PBS/BBC miniseries starring Kenneth Branaugh as Shackleton last year, and it was extremely faithful to the book, even pulling large parts of dialogue verbatim. One difference is that the movie was from Shackleton's perspective so when the party was split and he went with the smaller group to find people to come back and rescue the larger group, you didn't know what was happening to the larger group until Shackleton returned. (An excellent movie, by the way.)

Overall, I think the book was a wonderful overview of the events, a great character analysis of Ernest Shackleton, and a harrowing example of how if you fight Mother Nature, she always wins. How they crossed the Drake Passage in small open boats, I shudder to think about. Terrific adventure story.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

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