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Customer Review

176 of 187 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spellbinding Account of Disastrous Polar Expedition, May 25, 2014
This review is from: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Hardcover)
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I could not put this book down.

This is a detailed historical account of a tragic polar expedition that reads like a psychological thriller novel. Adding to the novelistic flavor are poignant quotes from the journals and letters of the expedition's men and stories about their loved ones waiting for their return.

When George Washington De Long, a young naval officer, left the San Francisco harbor on July 8, 1879, commanding the ship "Jeanette," he was already a national hero. Earnest and methodical, he was leading a handpicked, competent, disciplined crew, bound for the North Pole.

De Long and many other explorers and scientists in that era believed that the Arctic ice pack formed only an outer ring, and beyond it was an "Open Polar Sea." This "Open Polar Sea" was thought to be a large, warm water basin, that a ship might sail through right to the North Pole, possibly finding land and inhabitants at the North Pole. De Long's expedition was in search of a pathway through this ice to the "Open Polar Sea."

De Long did not know, as he set sail, that data from a U.S. Bering Sea survey disproving the "Open Polar Sea" theory would reach Washington, DC after he sailed.

Even after he began to suspect that the theory might be wrong, he continued pursuing his goal of reaching the North Pole and making additional discoveries in the Arctic. This was not a totally unreasonable idea -- the ship was heavily reinforced to resist the ice packs, and carried huge amounts of coal to keep the crew warm, plentiful food, dogs for hauling and an excellent navigator, an innovative engineer and a brilliant doctor.

But as the book shows, the Arctic is treacherous, and just a few pieces of bad luck and some missing or erroneous information can destroy the bravest, strongest and best-trained men.

The book also provides an overview of Gilded Age American and European society in this era, and how Victorian concepts of exploration, manhood, and science affected the expedition's planning and outcome.

Especially striking are the portraits -- almost mini-novellas -- of the two primary intellectual sponsors of the voyage and their impact on its goals and design -- the expedition's financially generous, but dangerously eccentric and unrealistic financial sponsor, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the autocratic owner of the New York Herald Tribune, and Professor Augustus Petermann, a brilliant German cartographer, suffering from severe bipolar disorder (untreatable in his day) and an unwillingness to consider alternative polar geography theories.

A third sponsor -- the U.S. Navy -- truly did its best for the expedition, fitting out the ship in the California Mare Island naval shipyard with the expert advice of naval engineers. The book is a classic illustration of the fact that even careful planning by experts cannot foresee all possible outcomes and cannot save projects based on erroneous theories.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 18, 2014 1:52:32 PM PDT
Mare Island is in the San Francisco Bay East of the city of San Francisco!

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2014 4:45:52 PM PDT
Dear Eric:

Thank you for the geographic correction! I have removed the erroneous reference.

Reader from Washington, DC

Posted on Nov 13, 2014 11:24:39 AM PST
Years (make that "decades")ago I thoroughly enjoyed enjoyed the novelized version of "Hell on Ice" of the voyage. What a story!
I've often wondered why more has not been written since "Hell on Ice". I'll celebrate it all by reading the latest offering.
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