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Customer Review

77 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific characters keep this story from getting stuck in the ice, July 6, 2014
This review is from: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Hardcover)
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
North of Siberia, there is a chain of uninhibited, frozen islands: Jeannette, Henrietta, and Bennett. This chain is known as the DeLong islands, after George Washington DeLong. This is the story of how those islands were discovered, why they got that name...and at what price.

George DeLong was a young navy captain who became entranced with the Arctic on a disastrous voyage with the Juniata, during the years when all the world was inspired by the race to the North Pole. He became determined to find his own ship, and take his own quest. His path intersected with two incredible characters of the time. First was James Bennett, the profligate millionaire playboy newspaper owner who once terrified New York City by inventing and publishing a story about escaped Central Park Zoo animals going on a killing spree, and whose engagement to a society girl was cancelled by her horrified family when he peed into their grand piano at a high society party. Bennett, a lover of spectacle, liked inventing news more than reporting it - and became enchanted with the idea of sending his own party out to find the North Pole. Second was August Petermann, a world famous cartographer who rarely left his living room, had never traveled, but somehow had fashioned himself as one of the global authorities on the geography of the North Pole. Petermann was convinced that just past the polar ice pack was an open Polar Sea, with its own glorious continent, and he convinced Bennett to fund the search for it - and Bennett hired DeLong to do so. What happens from there is as grand and terrible as you might expect, to quote the book's sub title.

There have been lots of polar exploration stories, and I doubt any of them will ever touch one of the first, Lansing's Endurance and its story of Shackleton. There was a leanness to that story - a total focus on adventure - that this book is missing. Entranced by the characters of Bennett and Petermann - who, did I mention, also has suicidal tendencies? - Mr. Sides spends the first 150 pages of the book not on the ice, but with the founder and the cartographer who inspired its launch. They are great characters and I enjoyed reading about them, but it served to divide the book a bit, losing its focus.

Once on the ice, Mr. Sides also does a great job with the characters on the boat - stalwart DeLong, recently married and desperately in love with his wife; Danenhower, the navigator, who had once been insitutionalized and whose ability to handle the journey is in question; Collins, whose love for newfangled gadgets like Edison's electric lights could be the boat's savior or his own undoing; etc. Theres even an extended cameo from famed naturalist John Muir. But the best character, by far, is Melville, the young engineer/mechanic who is related to Herman, nudged whose energy, resilience, intelligence and ingenuity just might be the one thing that saves them all in the end.

Once the USS Jeanette becomes locked in ice, what drove a lot of the tension for me was the question: will DeLong make it home to his wife? Mr. Sides sets up their romance well, and intersperses their ice journey with letters Emma writes to her husband, for the years of his absence. Seeing her hope become genuine, then forced, then with desperation creeping in, is genuinely touching and you can't help rooting for their reunion.

Does it come? Well, I won't give that away. But the story is very well told. I think Mr. Sides is better with characters than he is with narrative tension; the book moved like the boat itself, gradually through deep ice, lots of time to enjoy the view, but not the right vehicle for going fast. Until the last 100 pages, the story was pretty slow. There was 150 pages of prep time, then another 150 pages of early journey and "trapped in ice". The energy of the characters - rather than action - kept me going. It picked up at the end as the situation got more desperate, as the boat was finally crushed by ice and DeLong, Melville and the gang fought desperately to find their way to civilization from thousands of miles away. A great story, very well told.
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