Hampton Sides 2014
Subtitle : The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
I opened Kingdom of Ice and could not believe seeing the Bradford painting I had raved about viewing at MMAM this summer: Icebergs in the Arctic, 1882. It was a remarkable faceplate, but the original was so much more sublime. This book concerns a US naval voyage undertaken in 1879 by Cpt George DeLong to get to the North Pole. People were obsessed with finding the North Pole, the last unmapped unknown of the globe, with the seemingly insurmountable fortress of ice rimming the arctic seas. He had had previous arctic experience, having rescued members of the Polaris in 1873, off Greenland. He caught arctic fever (pagophile, ice loving) and prepared meticulously and arduously for this expedition. His wife was an avid supporter and considered joining the voyage. The first third of the book explores the people, politics, and the scientific times (1874-1879), intriguing characters/vignettes from the generous funder, James Gordon Bennett jr, eccentric wealthy owner of the NY Herald who was looking for another sensational story to sell newspapers, after his previous success with dispatching Stanley to find Dr Livingston in Africa, to German mapmaker Petermann, and the arc lamp inventions of Thomas Edison.
The expedition started from San Francisco July 8, 1879 north for a voyage through the Bering straits, to an expected open, warm polar sea. This was a late start, further delayed searching for another missing explorer. Boats are seldom renamed: Jeannette was previously, perhaps more appropriately, the HMS Pandora. They were soon trapped in the ice and spent two years being moved at will (see maps!). Eventually, the hull was breached and quickly sank, leaving the crew of 33 men in 3 open boats, 1000 miles north of Siberia. Theirs was a march across frozen seas and wasteland against terrible odds, with staggering commradarie. The last third of the book details the horrific journey of the remaining two crews, separated in storm and then deposited distantly on the unforgiving Lena delta. Melville was fortunate to find natives, and have an enforced rest til the ice further froze, making travel easier. But, on learning that DeLong might be alive, his rescue efforts were immensely satisfying, haunting and fascinating. It will take some time to warm the bone deep chill of the hellish Arctic.
There are very good photos and drawings, although I wished for more to illustrate this incredible voyage. This was well researched and very educational about the era and ideas, providing nuanced profiles of major players, while propelling the story energetically along. The letters and journal entries of Emma DeLong and their daughter Sylvia contributed greatly to the poignant story. There are also so many other stories contained in this book, notably, John Muir who was haunted by the St Lawrence Island deaths of 1000 natives through starvation and whisky (The extinction of the walrus the previous decade by the whaling industry, noting that the American presence was a disaster and the entire wilderness ecosystem was vulnerable.) Muir's book The Cruise of the Corwin, about his search of the Jeannnete is considered a classic of Arctic literature.
The epilogue is particularly striking. Emma DeLong recognizing her role as the public face of the Jeannette expedition, and that she would be the 'Explorer's Wife' for the rest of her life. She went to live with her parents in NYC (father was Captain James Wotton). One of her letters to her husband was discovered in a remote Greenland hut, unopened, years later by explorer Robert Peary during one is his polar attempts (finally 1909). She wrote a book Explorer's Wife (1938).
Rear Admiral George Melville (engineer on the expedition) provided great support through the difficult years ahead and wrote a popular book In the Lena, defending De Long. He was involved in additional exploration and rescue (notably the Greely expedition 1884). The George Melville Award is the navy's highest honor for nautical engineering.
If you have read Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, read on.
If you liked Jennifer Niven's books on the 1913 Polar Voyage of the Karluk, read on.
Don't forget Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea or Caroline Alexander's The Endurance.
This would be a perfect Christmas gift for your nonfiction reader.