In the late 19th century, we still had no fucking clue what was going on in the artic. For example, many smart people thought the North Pole had a temperate climate and was covered by an open sea. Wild life flourished there, we were told, and man could live on the pole comfortably. The theory was known as a “the open polar sea”. It led to the deaths of many men.
The USS Jeannette
In the Kingdom of Ice is Hampton Sides tale of one group of these men — the sailors on the U.S.S. Jeannette. Based on the open polar sea theory, the sailors of the Jeanette, led by Charles DeLong, an American naval officer, attempted to sail for the North Pole. They figured if he could get through the ice that encircles the polar sea, they’d be golden.
Obviously, it didn’t work out this way. Instead, they became trapped in the polar ice – first for a year and then for another.
Then things got real bad.
I’ve read my fair share of harrowing tales of survival, and this one ranks up there with the best. I’d tell you of the horrors of surviving (or not surviving) in the inhospitable far north, but really, you should read the book for yourself. It has everything you’d expect from this story: incredible acts of bravery and endurance; tragic mistakes leading to inevitable death, and inspiring stories of admirable men acting… admirably. It is, at base, a story of human hubris where the sailors of the Jeannette paid the price for the fools of science who thought they answered all the questions of a landscape they had not even begun to understand. The theories these men believed in were horribly misguided; the maps they sailed under, wrong. That they endured as much as they did is a testament to the human will to live, and makes for a compelling read.
Sides isn’t content to only write a gripping narrative of polar exploration. He’s also deeply interested in the world which produced the expedition. There are long passages focusing on the science behind the expedition, and on the eccentricities of the expedition’s backer, James Gordon Bennet, Jr. The intention is to set the scene, and give a better understanding of the culture that produced the Jeannette. But I found these passages a bit trying. I appreciate a bit of background on August Petermann, the German scientist to blame for much of this foolishness, but an extended sequence on Bennet bringing tennis to America was a bit too far afield for me.
Still, this one gets the recommended tag. Top notch writing and storytelling combined with the incredible nature of the events makes this a great read.