BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, August 2014

On July 8, 1879, cheering throngs watched as the USS Jeannette set out from San Francisco and sailed off like a “long dark pencil of shadow standing straight up against the vivid sunset.” Under the command of officer George Washington De Long, the steamer and its crew were attempting to reach the North Pole and confirm a then--popular theory that the polar sea remained ice-free and open north of the Bering Strait. The expedition was funded by James Gordon Bennett Jr., the wealthy and eccentric owner of the New York Herald, who had also financed Stanley’s mission to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone.

Drawing on newly available letters, diaries, journals and other archives, crackerjack storyteller Hampton Sides (Hellhound on His Trail) vividly chronicles the tale of the Jeannette, the excitement and optimism surrounding the expedition, the contentious arguments regarding scientific theories about the Arctic and the fate of the ship and its crew.

The expedition’s great hope of sailing unimpeded by the ravages of ice floes is shattered when the Jeannette becomes trapped in ice, and the crew must spend long, lonely weeks in unending darkness jammed fast. Two years into the voyage, ice breaches the hull, the ship sinks, and the crew finds itself thousands of miles from land.

De Long leads a heroic march toward safety over unforgiving ice and in conditions that punish every crew member’s body. The tale of De Long’s struggle for survival is also the tale of his wife Emma’s struggle to maintain heroic hope during his absence. Weaving her letters to her husband—which he never received—through the narrative, Sides captures this gnawing anxiousness and stoic optimism.

Compulsively readable, In the Kingdom of Ice brilliantly recreates a world, invites us to enter it and to experience the isolation, fear and hope of the people in it, and leads us back to our worlds with a clearer understanding of what motivates those who undertake daunting but heroic challenges.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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