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In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette Hardcover – August 5, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2014: In the last few decades of the 19th century, the world looked very different from the way it does now. Parts of the map were unfilled--chief among those spaces was the North Pole, which many believed contained warm currents that might provide safe passage. Enter James Gordon Bennett, the wealthy and eccentric owner of the New York Herald. Bennett--who was responsible for sending Stanley in search of Livingstone--wanted to produce another thrill for his readers, so he funded a naval expedition to reach the pole. Captained by George Washington De Long, the U.S.S. Jeannette shipped out in 1879 toward glory and parts unknown. The Jeannette became encased in ice, but the adventure was only just beginning. Author Hampton Sides does a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction. Drawing on journal entries, letters, and eventually his own visit to the region, Sides paints a vivid, moving, and breathless portrait of the crew of the Jeannette. How could a book about this much snow and ice be this good? --Chris Schluep
"Enthralling… In the Kingdom of Ice is a brilliant explosion of narrative non-fiction: detailed, moving, harrowing, as gripping as any well-paced thriller but a lot more interesting because it is also true… Too often American heroism is presented at one-dimensional success against the odds… This is a much more subtle and rewarding book, an account of magnificent disaster, of courage devoted to attempting something that could not be done."
--The Times of London
“As our knowledge of the world increases, it must be difficult for audacious explorers to find terra incognita to match their passion. Surely the same frustration holds true for writers in that worthy genre, exploration literature: Haven’t all great stories been told? Never underestimate the ingenuity of a first-rate author. Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, which recounts the astonishing tribulations of a group of seafarers determined to be the first men to reach and reconnoiter the North Pole, is a splendid book in every way… It would be malicious to ruin the suspense about the fate of the Jeannette’s crew… The book is a marvelous nonfiction thriller.”
--The Wall Street Journal
"Compelling....Sides spins a propulsive narrative from obscure documents, journals and his own firsthand visits to the Arctic regions visited by the Jeannette and its crew. In the Kingdom of Ice makes for harrowing reading as it recounts the grim aspects of the explorers' battle for survival: illness, crippling frostbite, snow-blindness and the prospect of starvation. As grisly as the details are, you keep turning pages to find out how DeLong and his men pull themselves past each setback — even though there's always another one looming ahead."
“[Sides] brings vividness to In the Kingdom of Ice, and in the tragedy of the Jeannette he’s found a story that epitomizes both the heroism and the ghastly expense of life that characterized the entire Arctic enterprise…With an eye for the telling detail, he sketches the crew members as individuals…The bare facts of what happened to the Jeannette’s crew are easily Googleable, but if you don’t already know the story, In the Kingdom of Ice reads like a first-class epic thriller. De Long and his companions became explorers of not only unknown geographical territory but also extremes of suffering and despair. In his stoic endurance of disappointment and pain, De Long rivals Louis Zamperini, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken…”
--Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“First-rate polar history and adventure narrative...wonderfully evocative.... Sides vividly recounts the horrors [of the voyage]. In the Kingdom of Ice is a harrowing story, well told.
--The New York Times Book Review
“Unforgettable…a pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre Arctic backdrop…[Sides’] descriptions of the physical challenges the men face and the eerie landscape that surrounds them are masterful. As De Long and his crew attempt to save themselves, the story grows in suspense and psychological complexity…More strange and fantastic turns follow, involving uncharted and uninhabited lands, and it pains me that I cannot describe them without spoiling the pleasure of those who have not yet read In the Kingdom of Ice. Sides’ book is a masterful work of history and storytelling.”
--The Los Angeles Times
“America’s own brush with epic polar tragedy, the subject of Hampton Sides’ phenomenally gripping new book, is a less well-known affair…What ensued — a struggle to survive and a nearly 1,000-mile trek across the Arctic Ocean and into the vastness of Siberia — stands as one of the most perilous journeys ever. Sides works story-telling magic as he evokes the pathos and suffering of what unfolded: De Long and his crew endured hardships that boggle the mind. But there is also beauty here… [Sides] writes superbly on the geography of Siberia and the Arctic, and the abundant bird and animal life the explorers encountered on their travels, which took them across ice, storm-tossed seas, treacherous tundra, rocky seacoasts, and volcanic islands.”
--The Boston Globe
“…harrowing and impeccably paced.”
--The New Yorker
"A dazzling page-turner.....”
--Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea, Bunker Hill and Sea of Glory
“[A] stunningly vivid account.....”
--Mark Bowden, New York Times Bestselling author of Black Hawk Down
“An astonishingly good story....”
--Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of The Destiny of the Republic and The River of Doubt
"Hampton Sides conjures the doomed USS Jeannette and her courageous crew with haunting power...."
--Caroline Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The Endurance and The Bounty
"A spellbinding tale....”
--David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of Z
"Hampton Sides is one of America’s most expansive and engaging storytellers, and he proves it again with the incredible saga of the USS Jeannette...."
--Scott Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Lawrence in Arabia
"A vivid tale of exploration set in a howling, deadly wilderness."
--T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
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This is first-rate narrative history, well-written and paced to create a gripping account. "Novelistic" can be used as an insult to history writing, but I use it here as a compliment. This is a page-turner. Unfortunately, having read this in galleys, there is no index, nor are photos provided, but the end notes are thorough and this seems to be very well researched.
The letters written by Lt. DeLong's wife during the time he and the ship and crew were out of contact are hear-warming and -rending and provide an excellent counter-point and commentary on the main narrative, and the author's access to the surviving journals and letters of the other crew members allow him to paint full-bodied portraits of the men on the ice. You come very quickly to care about these men and their fates.
The story of the Jeannette is, like many explorations before and after it, one of extreme heroism, a good deal of heartbreak, and high adventure for those of us in armchairs. This is a fine addition to the literature.
A NOTE ABOUT PRINT VS EBOOK: I bought this on Kindle so i could read it in bed at night w/o disturbing my wife but the problem w the ebook is you lose the beauty of the illustrations and maps. They are included at the end but it is hard to make out much detail. I would definitely recommend getting print and the book is well worth getting in hardback.
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.
It is a fascinating book, but it is way too long. Mr. Sides falls into the trap of many nonfiction authors in being unable to resist putting all he found out in his research into the book. Hence we nearly get biographies of Bennett and Petersen and exhaustive breakdowns of all the theories of the polar ice. Each could have been dealt with well in a page or two.
The men and women (mostly De Long's wife, but she qualifies) involved in the adventure were super, super tough. Listen to the hosts on the Weather Channel prepping us for a day in the 20s with a wind chill in the teens, and then think about what these humans endured. When the only option is a death of terrible suffering, you endure a life and effort of slightly less terrible suffering, sometimes with a smile. No one involved in the voyage takes the easy way out (that is mostly because there was never an easy way out), and they worked together as a team despite some of the petty problems that arise under such circumstances. Like climbers on Everest, they put themselves in unnecessary risk for adventure and the thrill of discovery and testing themselves, and things didn't turn out well for anyone.
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One of the best books I've ever read in this category.