In these days when one can book a luxury round-the-world trip on a computer screen and every space shuttle mission draws scant interest, we have little concept of what it was like for the explorers of yesteryear to venture out into then completely unknown parts of this world. For more than 300 years, one of the greatest challenges in this area was the quest to find and map the Northwest Passage, an oceanic shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America. When Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally conquered the Passage in the early part of this century, it was only with great cost in funds, ships, and men's lives; many who sailed into the whiteness of the Arctic were never heard from again, their ultimate fate both gruesome and unavoidable. Here, James P. Delgado chronicles dozens of expeditions through the ice-choked waters and subzero temperatures.

With true man vs. nature tales like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm becoming huge bestsellers, the timing for this thorough tome seems right though Delgado writes more with a factually dry historian's style than that of a novelist or adventure narrator. Still, through straight text and an abundance of maps, photos, and graphics, he documents every chilly moment, while numerous sidebars delve deeper into the personalities of the explorers, both famous and little-known.

Of particular interest is his exploration of the Inuit culture and natives of the lands around the Passage and their alternately constructive/destructive relationship with the white European travelers.

Today, the Northwest Passage is valued more for its nearby natural resources than as a shipping route. But not so long ago, its discovery was an almost-mythic quest by a group of rugged men who believed strongly enough in the existence of the Passage to risk their lives. Across the Top of the World gives these adventurers their just celebration and place in history. ¦ Bob Ruggiero is a freelance journalist in Houston, Texas.

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