Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Hampton Sides, an excellent storyteller, here takes on “the grand and terrible polar voyage of the U.S.S. Jeanette,” as this book is subtitled.
As late as the end of the nineteenth century, no human being had ever been to the North Pole, but theories about what lay there abounded. All that was known for certain was that ships (usually whalers) that sailed north of Canada or Siberia encountered impenetrable pack ice that moved south in winter, but retreated to the north somewhat during the Arctic summer. The world’s most eminent cartographer, the German August Peterman, had theorized that the Kuroshio, a warm current flowing north past Japan in the Pacific, probably continued through the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, and then under the pack ice to warm a large, hitherto undiscovered “Polar Sea.”
James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric plutocrat who owned The New York Herald, believed that newspapers should not only report the news, but should also make it. It was he who sent Sir Henry Stanley to Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone (who was in no need of finding) and in the process to greatly increase newspaper circulation by reporting on his travels. Seeking another such coup, Bennett decided to sponsor a U.S. naval expedition to reach the Pole. He purchased a sturdy 146 foot, three-masted steam vessel, formerly belonging to the Royal Navy, and renamed it Jeannette after his sister. He designated as Captain a young officer named George Washington DeLong, who had won some renown in a rescue operation off the coast of Greenland. DeLong then recruited a crew of 32 men and set sail for the Arctic, guided only by charts prepared by cartographers who had never been there!
North of the Bering Strait, the ship was soon trapped in pack ice, where it remained for two years! Although completely immobile, the ship drifted about 1,000 miles in that time. Finally, the ice melted enough for the ship to float, but the next day, the ice returned with a vengeance, this time crushing the hull as with a vise and sending the Jeanette to the bottom. The crew was able to abandon ship in time to save most of their supplies and three small boats, but they were marooned on the ice hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
What followed makes a harrowing tale of extreme courage, resourcefulness, endurance, suffering, and comradeship as the crew “raced” to the coast of Siberia, one thousand miles away, before the onset of the Arctic winter. As it was, they could manage only a few miles a day because of all the supplies, equipment, and documents they dragged along. All of the men made it to the edge of the pack ice with their three small boats, but during their attempt to cross to the mainland they encountered a gale, which caused the boats to lose track of one another. Twenty of the original 33 men died (including DeLong), but the stories of some of those lost were preserved in their diaries, which were later discovered along with their frozen bodies. The heroic effort to make sure these accounts were saved was led by the crew’s engineer, George Melville (said to be distantly related to Herman Melville).
Evaluation: As in his other books (Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and Hellhound on His Trail), Hampton Sides moves this non-fiction narrative along at the pace of riveting, page-turning fiction. This is another gripping spell-binder, sure to please anyone interested in early polar exploration or just plain adventure.
A Note on the Audio Production:
The award-winning narrator, Arthur Morey, does quite a competent job. His intonation and pacing are good.
Published unabridged on 14 CDs (17 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2014