BOOK REVIEW: Using new translations of old letters and other documents, author Stephen R. Bown sheds new light on the passions and courage of this Norwegian explorer.
Before the moon and Mars and the vastness of outer space, there was the South Pole, the North Pole and the Northwest Passage.
In "The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen" (Da Capo Press, 356 pages, $27.50), Canadian author Stephen R. Bown uses recently translated letters, diaries and other sources to counter some of the negative treatment the great Norwegian explorer has received, much of it deriving from criticism of his 1911-12 "race" with English explorer Robert Scott to the South Pole.
Amundsen and his team reached the pole in December 1911, more than a month ahead of the Englishman.
Amundsen faded from public memory after his death at the age of 56 in 1928 -- he was lost on a rescue mission, trying to save a rival explorer -- and his name usually was invoked only in connection with Scott "without much subsequent discussion of Amundsen's substantial accomplishments following his exploits in Antarctica," Bown writes. "This book is intended to address the dearth."
Those accomplishments included his reaching the North Pole in 1926, the first expedition leader to achieve the prize without dispute.
Earlier, in 1903-06, he became the first to traverse Canada's Northwest Passage, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
Alf Ole Ask, a U.S. correspondent for the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, said recently that Amundsen "is not as big as [Fridtjof] Nansen," the Norwegian explorer who in 1889 became the first to traverse Greenland.
But Amundsen was widely celebrated as a national hero last year on the centennial of his South Pole achievement, and "all Norwegians know that he beat Scott."
Reading Amundsen's own descriptions of months at a time -- years! -- spent in the most inhospitable regions of the Earth, the physical and psychological challenges of living and working in extreme cold, traveling over jagged ice and ice-strewn, uncharted waters, one has to wonder: Why would anyone subject himself to such misery?
But Amundsen loved the sport of it, the adventure and newness of it.
And since he was a boy growing up in Norway, he had loved a broad, glittering, blue-white vista. "Your Arctic explorer revels in a field of ice," he wrote in one of his several books, "as a farmer delights in a wheat field."
His greatest ability might have been his willingness to change, to adapt. He learned much from the Inuit people on the use of dogs and skis and animal-skin clothing, and he went from sailing ships to dogsleds to airplanes to the prototype airship that in 1926 took him from Spitsbergen across the North Pole to Alaska.
"Amundsen towers in the pantheon of great explorers, and his death marked the end of an era," Bown writes in this persuasive and highly readable biography/ adventure story. "The corporate-funded, technology-dependent, risk-averse expeditions of today seem sterile compared with the gambles of the heroic age."
Chuck Haga, a longtime reporter for the Star Tribune, now lives and writes in North Dakota.