In the Kingdom of Ice
Hampton Sides 2014
Subtitle : The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.
Review by Helen McIver
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, hull was breached and quickly sank, leaving the crew of 32 men in 3 open boats, 1000 miles north of Siberia. Theirs was a march across frozen seas against terrible odds, with staggering commradarie. The last third of the book concerns the search by George Melville who searched for survivors. 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 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.)
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 (9 editions already)