Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review - In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

I have always been a lover of history and do consider myself to be a sponge when it comes to that subject. I find it constantly amazing what people have done in the past all in the name of (fill in the blank) and either successfully accomplished said goal, or died horribly while trying . . . .or both. When I met author Hampton Sides at the signing of his book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette, I figured that his book would be a good read about a little known voyage.

I am now ready to eat crow. Big time.

In the Kingdom of Ice is a masterfully well told tale of Naval officer George Washington DeLong who, commissioned by James Gordon Bennett Jr., lifelong bachelor and the eccentric and wealthy owner of The New York Herald, embarks on an expedition to the North Pole in hopes of discovering the Open Polar Sea. On 8 July 1879, DeLong and his thirty-two man crew bid San Francisco and the United States good bye as they set sail north to discover new lands inhabited by strange creatures while surrounded by surprisingly warm waters. Two years later, the hull of the USS Jeannette was breached by ice and sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, leaving her crew in the middle of an ice wasteland in the desolate hopes of returning to civilization. Add to the tale random bouts of insanity, undernourishment and several points of starvation, losing an eye to syphilis, fighting dogs, sausages made out of walrus, chilblains, frostbitten feet and toes and many cups of willow tea and you have barely scraped the tip of this iceberg. This was an expedition that was doomed to fail and yet the spirit of the men, no matter how harrowing their situation at hand, was beyond the limits of "normal" people.

This is not a book for someone who wants a "light read"; Sides grabs you from page one and never lets you go with his detailed and "sucks you in" writing. This story is a part of American and Russian history and yet, with the way that Sides tells the story, I had to remind myself repeatedly that THIS ALL HAPPENED. None of this was fabricated for a movie deal or for Sides to get published again . . . . every bit of this book happened.

2015 and the only places left to explore are the deeper parts of the oceans and space. Now, in the late nineteenth century, parts of the world were still "unknown" - because of James Gordon Bennett Jr., Livingston was "found" by Henry Morton Stanley. A young poet and naturalist was on board one of the rescue ships for the USS Jeannette -  his name was John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club. After the USS Jeannette sank, the crew, in their trek back to civilization, survived on polar bear, deer, reindeer, seal, willow tea and the oh so delicious pemmican. During one of the "rest stops" in the search for civilization, one of the crew members actually saw something slide from his foot when the doctor unwrapped the bandages from it . . . a part of his foot. Need I say more?

Even with all of this, In the Kingdom of Ice is an excellent book to read if you want to know more about the Arctic craze of the late 1800s and if you also want to dive into a true story that is truly Steampunk - adventure, history, invention, the strength of men in their march towards progress. Sides did an excellent job in bringing this piece of history to life and rightfully so. So glad I attended that book signing last year!


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