Book review: “In the Kingdom of Ice”
December 19, 2015
As we approach the deepest and darkest days of winter, before the slow but inevitable return to warmth and light, it is perhaps a perfect time to curl up and read "In The Kingdom Of Ice," Hampton Sides' heart-stopping account of the ill-fated Arctic odyssey of the USS Jeannette. Told in haunting detail, with maps, letters and photographs, the book moves along like a thriller, and will leave the reader breathless with wonder at what the heroic men of the USS Jeannette experienced.
Though the expedition sailed over 130 years ago, Sides' careful crafting of the characters pulls them right off the page, with each sailor fully detailed and brought to life. The ship also becomes a crucial personality, so vividly is it captured. And because so much of the fateful journey takes place in and on the ice of the Arctic, Sides does not neglect that realm in his telling. It is very nearly personified, too, with the bitter cold, the stifling darkness, and the monotonous cruelty of the gripping ice floes looming largest of all, lurking across the pages as an unfeeling monster that determines, without remorse, the final fate of the Jeannette and its unfortunate crew.
Many prevailing 19th century myths about the Arctic sank with the luckless Jeannette, which endeavored, with great financial backing and carrying the hopes of a nation, to reach the North Pole, the pinnacle of the last unmapped part of the world as the turn of the century approached. Theories abounded regarding the Pole and the conditions explorers would find once it was reached. The prevailing belief was of the existence of a warm Polar Ocean, enclosed by a thick and nearly impenetrable girdle of polar ice. But a romantic notion remained, beckoning, as a land of tropical wonders awaiting the stout of heart — that the North Pole was reachable once that icy barrier was overcome.
The ambitious captain of the Jeannette, George De Long, subscribed to the idea that the conventional approach to a Polar expedition — from the Atlantic and north along Greenland — was foolhardy, for that route had proven itself fraught with danger, and filled with crippling stretches of sea ice that pulverized even the hardiest ships. Instead, he set his hopes on the emerging theory of the presence of a second global oceanic conveyer belt, the Kuro Siwo, which was thought to be as significant as the Gulf Stream, but which funneled the tropical waters of the Pacific up to the Arctic through the Bering Sea. This, he felt, was the key to reaching the Pole.
Sides deftly sets the stage for the departure of the Jeannette from San Francisco in the summer of 1879, under portentous and stormy skies, as crowds lined the shore, eager to see the leave-taking of the vessel that carried so much of the nation's expectations. Confident of his carefully chosen crew and having prepped in an anticipation of every conceivable scenario, De Long sailed the heavily-provisioned ship north, knowing his wife and daughter might have to wait up to two years for their return.
As the ship sails into colder waters, the mood of the book darkens, and the idyllic charms of the warmer and more frequented waters diminish in the ship's wake. It is from revelations of De Long's carefully maintained and guarded journals and expedition log books that Sides pulls the increasingly harrowing details of the expedition's fate. Any Arctic sailor from the Golden Age of exploration knew that it was a near certainty that ice would encase a ship during the inkiest darkness of winter. It was for this reason that ships sailed so heavily burdened with provisions, ranging from unappetizing staples such as pemmican and dried fish, and lime juice to fight off scurvy, to luxury items such as brandy and musical instruments, to hold depression and mutiny at bay.
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The noose of ice tightens around the vessel, and the pace of Sides' narrative quickens, pulling the reader deeper into the anguished imprisonment of the crew of the Jeannette. "In The Kingdom Of Ice" is both thrilling and chilling, an historical tour-de-force that will have readers up late, as unable to relinquish a hold on the Jeannette as the ice that claimed it for its own.
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