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In the 1870s, George De Long was bitten by the Arctic exploration bug after taking part in a rescue mission off the coast of Greenland. He wanted to find his way to the North Pole. He consulted with many experts, most of whom seemed to believe that the Pole itself was covered by an “Open Polar Sea.” If a crew could just find its way through the outer ice pack, the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing, so to speak. Experts also mostly agreed that it was time to try this feat by traveling through the Bering Strait. Greenland had been tried and led to failure multiple times. The Kuro Siwo (Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream) should make the trip easier by warming the waters. With funding from newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett, Jr. and under the aegis of the US Navy, De Long and his crew set sail on July 8, 1879 to conquer the North Pole.
This is probably one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. I’ve been reading about one nonfiction book a month for the past five years or so but I’m still a fiction reader in my heart of hearts. I generally read my nonfiction at night before bed because I don’t worry too much about falling into the “one more chapter” trap with nonfiction.
This book caused me to lose sleep.
It started out a little slow. The prologue was fantastic and hooked me immediately. The ship De Long was on was looking for a group of Arctic explorers who had disappeared. They found a large group of survivors on an ice floe. They had been on that chunk of ice, living on whatever raw meat they could catch, for almost a year. Holy smokes. But then the narrative shifted to De Long’s preparation for his own voyage, his research, and some background on Bennett and De Long himself. That part dragged a bit for me. I don’t honestly think much could have been cut out. I needed the scientific background to understand how anyone could think this trip was possible and the personal details enriched the story. Nevertheless, I didn’t stay hooked until the Jeannette finally launched.
It was an easy five stars from there.
I’d never heard of this ship and her crew so I won’t say much about what happened in case you haven’t either. They were trapped in the ice within a few months of setting sail. They were very well-supplied so life wasn’t terribly difficult for them at first, considering the circumstances. One description left me with a haunting image of a ship, her crew of 33 men, some candles and lanterns, and nothing but hundreds of miles of unrelenting darkness and emptiness for months on end. It makes my chest tight just to think about it. Anyway, their circumstances did eventually change and they found themselves struggling against Nature herself for survival.
I can’t even begin to imagine enduring what these men endured. I was ready to lie down and die just reading about it. I don’t have one speck of whatever it is that causes someone to leave the comfort of hearth and home to travel to the farthest, harshest ends of the world just to see what’s out there. I admire those who are brave enough to take on those adventures.
A crew of 33 sounds fairly small to me but that could have been an unmanageable number to write about effectively. The author wisely focuses on just a few and I was able to follow along easily. These men were incredibly loyal and well-disciplined, especially given the circumstances they found themselves in. There were some ill-tempered men but De Long was even able to keep them in line. He came across as a remarkably fair leader who put the needs of his men first. There were a couple of other standouts, Melville and Danenhower. The latter seemed to have been born for life in the Arctic. He could wade through icy water for hours and hours without seeming to suffer any ill effects. He often shouldered a large burden of messy duties simply because he was about the only person who could physically stand to do them. Melville was the guy you always want to have at your side. He could fix anything, find a solution to any problem, and he was stubborn and loyal. He ends up almost literally moving heaven and earth to accomplish what he wants at the end.
This is well-written, engaging nonfiction of the type I like best. I highly recommend it to anyone.
If you liked In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, you might also like my reviews of
- Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose
- The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, read by Mark Deakins
- Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Buy In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.
I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in beautiful Asheville, NC. I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase merchandise through links on my site.