Monday, August 25, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Thirty-three men, 54,000 pounds of pemmican, 2,500 pounds of roast mutton, 3,000 pounds of stewed and corned beef, 3,000 pounds of salt pork, 100 pounds of tongue, 150 pounds of beef extract, a dozen barrels of concentrated lime juice to combat scurvy, barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer, “250 gallons of sperm oil, hundreds of pounds of tallow, thousands of wicks, and all manner of lamps – bull’s eye lanterns, globe lanterns, bunker lanterns, hand lanterns,” fifteen arc lights provided by Thomas Edison, two of Alexander Graham Bell’s new telephones for over-the-ice communication, and a host of other necessities sailed from San Francisco toward the North Pole.  Hampton Sides reveals their 1879 journey in this thrilling account. The men expected to enter a northern gulf stream that would create open waters after they broke through a “girdle” of ice pack north of the Bering Strait because that’s what prevailing theory said would be there.  Their ship, the USS Jeannette, had three masts, a reinforced bow, and an extra steam engine but it was still essentially just a wooden ship heading into what we now know was a sea of ice. Still, they had the financial support of one of the world’s wealthiest men and the scientific and engineering expertise of the U.S. Navy and some of the world’s best minds.  They also had a hand-picked crew that might make up for overly optimistic prognostications with incredible courage, skills, and downright decency. They were the darlings of the media especially since their benefactor, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., saw the voyage as a way to increase circulation of his newspapers as had his earlier folly in dispatching Stanley to find Livingston in Africa. Everyone in the world was following their expedition.

Using expedition leader Lt. George Washington De Long’s own accounts along with logs and journals by the ship’s doctor and others, Sides weaves an entertaining account of the preparations for the trek and of the harrowing encounters with ice, hunger, storms, and error-filled maps. This book is worth reading simply for the pleasure of learning about De Long, a leader, whose preparations, continuous reassessments, and careful trust in the right men to do their specific tasks could be used as a collegiate course in effective management skills.

While much of the world knew of this journey in 1879, we know very little about it and that makes this book read like a suspense-filled thriller.  I am so grateful that I didn’t know what eventually happened on the journey so I was able to follow the ship’s trek without any expectations.  Some reviews give away the ending. Don’t read them until after you read Sides’ tale.  His exceptional journalistic skills honed reporting for “Outside” magazine and writing about World War II rescues in his previous best seller, Ghost Soldiers, make this a thrilling page turner.

Summing it Up: Read this to learn about the expedition that attempted to find an open passage to the North Pole via the Bering Strait and the waters north of Alaska and Siberia in 1879.  Savor it for the intimate view of the lives of the remarkable men who sailed on the Jeannette.

Rating:  Five stars   
Category: Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: August 5, 2014
What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews (Warning: this contains spoilers; read it after reading the book.):

New York Times: (Warning: this contains spoilers; read it after reading the book.):