In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
I love adventure stories that involve individuals doing seemingly impossible things. The indomitable human spirit reigns supreme! IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE gives you the kind of thrills and chills (figuratively, in a variety of ways) that you get from a Jon Krakauer or Sebastian Junger book. Hampton Sides’s recounting of the ill-fated USS Jeannette is one of the most harrowing, exciting and ultimately stupefying nonfiction tomes I’ve ever read. It’s almost unbelievable that people could survive the kind of nightmare this crew survived. But they did, and now we have a fascinating volume to let us in on the labyrinthine history that brought these explorers to the brink of disaster.
Before the ice started to melt and the polar bears began to dissipate, the North Pole was considered the ultimate unexplored oasis that adventurers kept at the top of their bucket lists. According to the work of a mapmaker named August Petermann, the warm gulf-like currents that fed into the Open Polar Sea were responsible for helping the land maintain a verdant wonderland of flora and fauna that existed nowhere else in the world. Sure, the South Seas were often called paradise, but clearly there were other greener and vaster paradises waiting to be seen. Explorers and nationalists alike took notice, and many of the world’s greatest nations began to plan expeditions that would get them the historically relevant position of first to land and conquer. Who would make it there before everyone else?
"With elegant and poetic language, and by using his own experiences adventuring in that part of the world to tell the story, Sides turns a desperate and frightening tale into a thrilling escapade to which every reader will become fully committed."
It just so happened that the same newspaper magnate who used his wealth (he owned the New York Herald) to create the opportunity for Stanley to meet Livingstone in Africa decided that he would also be the man to fund the first successful expedition to the Polar wonderland. He chose a young naval officer named George Washington DeLong as his captain, and the U.S. was on its way to being the first to plant a flag at the North Pole.
In July 1879, the USS Jeannette, fully staffed and led by Dr. DeLong, set sail from San Francisco. These 33 men had only the highest of expectations in mind, for their own adventuring spirits as well as the fate of a nation that hoped, once again, to go where no man had gone before. Once they made it north of the Bering Strait, they thought perhaps they were free and clear. But instead, the USS Jeannette sunk to the Arctic floor, and the men found themselves doing whatever they could to stay alive on the ice cap, 1,000 miles north of Siberia with three open boats and not a lot of materials with which to maintain physical vigor and safety.
And so the troop begins an equally foolhardy and brave walk across the frozen sea. Battling elements of nature heretofore unheard of and pestilence of all kinds, dangerous beyond their wildest dreams and desperate medical traumas, the crew of the Jeannette valiantly tried to get back to civilization or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Hampton Sides takes unpublished correspondence by most of the major players for this ill-fated expedition and uses them to give a ring of authenticity and immediacy to the travails as they play themselves out. With elegant and poetic language, and by using his own experiences adventuring in that part of the world to tell the story, Sides turns a desperate and frightening tale into a thrilling escapade to which every reader will become fully committed. Although the book begins with the finding of the men on an ice floe, eating raw seals and drinking their blood to stay alive, you encounter each piece of their arduous journey with the perspective that you have no clue how it is going to end. It is such an enthralling account that I dare you to put it down --- it really is as exciting as any mystery or thriller on the bestseller list, with the additional caveat of truth to make it the most compelling book you’ll read this summer.
When the temperatures get too high at the beach, the specific and tangible details of Sides’s work will help you touch the ice caps as the adventurers do. IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE is an extraordinary dramatic literary experience from a master storyteller. It’s a book you will live with for some time to come after you’ve encountered all its wonders.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on August 15, 2014