Hampton Sides’ nonfiction tome In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terribly Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette had made its appearance on a number of best lists of 2014, so I was eager to read it. Silly me made the error of reading it on a cruise ship though, which led to the appearance of a number of icebergs in my dreams.
It’s the late nineteenth century and people the world over are struck by Artic Fever. Theories abound about the North Pole, including the prominent (and incorrect) one by the German cartographer August Petermann, which claimed that the fortress of ice simply framed a warm sea surrounding a verdant island. James Gordon Bennett, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald, seeking a new adventure to sensationalize for his readers, decides to find the truth. He funds a nationally-sanctioned U.S. naval expedition to prove American might and claim the Pole. Departing in 1879 from San Francisco and captained by rescue hero George Washington De Long, the USS Jeanette quickly became trapped in an ice pack. For two years, the 32-man crew lived on the floes until the ship finally sank. Realizing the only hope of survival was to travel 1000 miles south, they set off with their dogs and canoes, walking across a frozen hellscape, either to rescue in Siberia or death.
Is that all a spoiler when it actually happened over a century ago? In any case, the ending is tragic, especially for a few of the people (and dogs) I felt connected to over the course of their 454 page narrative. Because let’s be real, I would’ve given up and died much sooner than them (not that I would’ve taken this trip to begin with), so was suitably impressed by their perseverance and courage in the face of insane adversity and terrible odds of survival – though I was convinced for the first half that they all would survive, and appalled to discover the reality.
This voyage was both a product of its time and of its people, and Sides does a fantastic job of weaving in a character-driven story with the greater historical-cultural background. From the flamboyantly wealthy and eccentric sponsor James Gordon Bennett to the determined dreamer and fearless leader George Washington De Long and his devoted wife Emma, he made the reader feel like these real people were really alive and personally knowable. For a sad and harrowing tale, the contrast between Bennett and De Long provides some levity, as does anecdotes of Bennett’s society-scandalizing hijinks and the men’s daily occupations on the ice. I’m glad Sides focused mainly on Bennett and De Long because the introduction of the rest of the crew proved to be a few too many to remember all individually.
There is a fair amount of science involved, including detailed explanations of the prevailing theories of the time about currents and the Earth’s geography (ex. Kuro Siwo, Wrangel Land, and the Open Polar Sea). Sides makes it readable, even for a non-science person like myself, though I admit my attention flagged at certain parts during the journey’s preparation stages. Though the book is long, and dry on occasion, I still read it fairly quickly. The last third as the crew walks through endless labyrinths of ice is a gripping, awe-inspiring journey and definitely worth the first few hundred pages.
Overall, this book is both well-researched and well-written, and particularly interesting in an age where the melting polar ice cap is making headlines. A highly recommended read for anyone with Artic fever of their own, or who are explorers and adventurers at heart.