I have a deep, abiding fascination for Antarctic and Arctic exploration, for those people who challenge the ice and persevere. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides is an excellent new entry into that genre.
The Jeannette expedition was funded in large part by James Gordon Bennet Jr., the notorious playboy publisher who also funded Stanley’s search for the not-lost Livingstone, hosted the first tennis and polo matches, founded what is now known as the US Open and whose Herald publishing empire continues today with the International Times Herald. The expedition was one to search for and find the elusive Northwest passage that explorers have sought since the Americas were colonized. Much of that search was predicated on the false, but widely held belief that there was an open polar sea, even possibly an Edenic utopia with fantastical creatures warmed and sustained by heat coming from the center of the earth through a polar conduit. If only a ship could get going fast enough to sail up to the ice pack early enough they could work their way through the ice pack to this warm and lush Eden. It may seem silly now, but it made sense with the knowledge people had then.
George De Long was an American sailor who had a fascination for the Arctic and exploration and wanted America to get some of the glory of exploration. He had spent some time in the Arctic and was bitten with the bug. Most expeditions has approached the Arctic via Greenland, but the United States had just purchased Alaska and De Long thought that might be a better route. When he and Bennett came together, De Long has the financial support he needed and Bennett had the next big thing for his publishing empire to write about.
Every thought and preparation was made for the journey. A ship was purchased and refitted for the ice. No expense was spared because Bennett provided unlimited support. They even visited Edison and bought arc lighting to illuminate the long Arctic night. About a third of the book is devoted to these preparations and plans, the recruitment of the best officers, the best provisions, the best technology, the best maps. There is some time spent on the personal lives of Bennett and De Long, particularly De Long’s remarkable courtship and marriage, but that is always second to the story of the expedition. I think it lingered too long on the preparation, though. I do not share Sides’ fascination with the minute details of pounds of this, that and the other kind of item stored onboard. The listing of the minutia reminded me of someone reciting baseball card statistics.
The story of De Long and his sailors who spent two years trapped in the ice pack before their ship foundered and who then walked 2500 miles across the ice, dragging small boats until they finally found open water which they then sailed through raging storms before landing on the Lena River Delta in northern Siberia and who then began an arduous trek across the mud, muck and ice of the tundra is a story of tremendous courage and fortitude. How they found that courage, how De Long’s leadership inspired them and kept them going despite the many reasons for despair, that fascinates me.
The morale of the men, through constant struggle, remained high. Their discipline and commitment and their unswerving support of each other tells us that De Long was an extraordinary leader. His journals and log books survive to inform us, as do letters and journals of other men on the boat. The chapters are introduced by the touching and loving letters De Long’s wife sends – sending multiple copies to different possible cities where she hopes De Long might find his way.
The life onboard the Jeannette, the difficulty and the cold deprivation of marching across the ice pack, the terror of the stormy sea and the frustrating desolation of the Lena delta are vividly brought to life. When they were dragging those boats across the ice, I felt so chilled by the description I wrapped up in a blanket while reading.
This is a story of great courage and great tragedy. It is well-written and always fascinating. I only wish the author could have changed history and given these brave men the ending they deserved. Still, enough of the sailors survived to bring back the story and the documents so we, as readers, can come to know these worthy and inspiring people. This is a good book. It would be a more satisfying book if there were some heavier editing of the details that prove Sides did his research but that don’t move the story forward. I recommend it for those who love adventure and exploring our species tremendous capacity to persevere.