NONFICTION: Hampton Sides recounts the disastrous journey of the USS Jeannette, which was headed for the North Pole but spent two years trapped in Arctic ice.
In the late 19th century the North Pole was the subject of much interest and mystery, proposed by even eminent geographers to be a temperate paradise warmed by air expelled from the core of the Earth or by tropical currents. In search of this Shangri-La, or at least a polar shortcut from the Americas to Eastern Europe, the USS Jeannette set out in 1879, backed by the sensationalistic New York Herald, aided by the U.S. Navy and captivating public interest. This expedition is the subject of “In the Kingdom of Ice,” a fascinating new book by Hampton Sides.
Sides preludes the voyage with an exuberant depiction of America’s Gilded Age, an era that belongs to men with big ideas, stout hearts and deep pockets. We get to know Augustus Petermann, whose theory of an open Polar Sea catches the public imagination; newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett, who knows an expedition to the North Pole will sell a lot of newspapers, and George De Long, the naval commander who captains the Jeannette and becomes something of an international superstar. There is enough humor, wonder, scandal and romance in these pages to make for good reading even if the ship never sets sail.
It is well to be buoyed up by the first act because the Jeannette’s voyage is a disastrous one. Trapped in the ice for nearly two years, the crew survives deep cold, six-month nights, and waves of illness only to lose the ship a week after it is finally released. Their survival then depends on a brutal journey: sledding across unstable ice, boating across turbulent seas, and hiking across the hinterlands of Siberia. Here De Long proves a brave and resourceful leader, taking his crew through thousands of uncharted miles in search of civilization. The book’s final act is a stunning story of courage, loyalty and determination, at times horrifying, but not without moments of wonder — discovery of uncharted islands strewn with the tusks of woolly mammoths, for example, and sighting of another island previously believed to be only a legend.
Sides conveys the story largely through the diaries and letters of the men themselves, and so immerses readers as much in the period as he does in the Arctic wilderness. When these men hunt polar bears for sport, exploit native traders, plunder pristine wilderness and stage minstrel shows, it without disapprobation by the author. The men emerge as heroes of their own time, facing inconceivable hardship with grit and optimism that is as much of the era as colonization and conquest.
Exhaustively researched and brilliantly written, “In the Kingdom of the Ice” is the work of a top-notch historian and storyteller. Readers braced for its hardships are in for a great read.
Minneapolis writer Kurtis Scaletta received the Readers’ Choice prize at the Minnesota Book Awards in 2012.