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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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The ship sailed in 1879 into uncharted seas, but soon was trapped in pack ice. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the hull was breached. Amid the rush of water and the shrieks of breaking wooden boards, the crew abandoned the ship. Less than an hour later, the Jeannette sank to the bottom, and the men found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies. Thus began their long march across the endless ice, a frozen hell in the most lonesome corner of the world. Facing everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and frosty labyrinths, the expedition battled madness and starvation as they desperately strove for survival.
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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.
The time was circa 1880; when the genius of Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell was still evolving, and when James Gordon Bennett Jr. was the owner, publisher and editor of the “New York Herald”; he was also the benefactor of the voyage of the USS Jeannette even though the vessel was inducted into the US Navy.
The story is distilled from the private writings and journal of the Commander, George De Long, various crew members including Melville the engineer and Ambler the ships medical officer. It is a captivating historical account that reveals the sorrow of separation of loved ones, the severe conditions under which the crew’s survival pivoted and the tragic end to the Jeannette and its commander, De Long, as well as a number of other crew members. Although the expedition was a failure in its quest, reaching the North Pole, it did provide scientific data that was preserved and returned with the survivors of the mission. If nothing less, the data dispelled the theory of the open polar sea as supported by Heinrich Petermann widely regarded as the world’s leading theoretical cartographer of the time and whose maps commander De Long depended.
While steeped in historical detail, Hampton Sides makes the recitation of the facts incredibly readable and the resulting story a “cannot put down” read. I highly recommend that you add this book to your reading list; you shouldn’t be disappointed.