As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, the quest for the fabled open polar seas leads me down a winding path.
Sides, Hampton. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette. Doubleday. 2014. 480p. ISBN 9780385535373. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385535380. HISTORICAL ADVENTURE
Deftly blending history and adventure, Sides dramatically evokes the last great exploration to discover the fabled open polar sea. His account is wide ranging, suspenseful, and fascinating in its detail. He lays the mythic ground for polar exploration, a kind of mania that gripped the world’s imagination in the 1800s when even serious scientists speculated that the region could be home to prehistoric beasts and unknown tribes of humans. Centrally, it was erroneously believed that there was an open polar sea somewhere beyond a girdle of icy mountains. Determined to find a weakness in that ice wall, Lt. Commander George Washington De Long led a U.S. naval expedition financed by James Gordon Bennett Jr., the owner of the New York Herald (and the same man responsible for the Henry M. Stanley and David Livingstone meeting). The campaign quickly fell to the disastrous power of the ice, trapping the Jeannette in its grasp for two years. Then, suddenly, as if taking a last gasp of air, the ship rose up only to sink into the sea, leaving the crew castaway on the frozen ground. Split by catastrophe into separate groups, only a few crewmen survived, one of whom, George Melville, continued the quest for the others and ultimately discovered the fate of De Long. Rich in character and story (including a madcap report of a War of the Worlds–like episode Bennett published starring rampaging tigers in New York’s Central Park), Sides’s work brilliantly conjures up the Gilded Age, the frenzy of exploration, and the dogged quests of men. While the book’s length is rather long, the narrative history is briskly paced and populated with dimensional identities and fascinating detail about America aflame by the idea of terrestrial investigation.
Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Basic. 1999. 288p. ISBN 9780786706211. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780306817731. HISTORICAL ADVENTURE
Readers who want more vividly told tales of perilous exploration in icy climes should enjoy Lansing’s astoundingly solid history of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica, the third quest he undertook to reach the South Pole. Like Sides, Lansing recounts a mission beset by trouble early on and a crew forced to abandon their ship and shelter on the ice. Shackleton’s will, luck, heroics, and amazing determination saved his entire assembly, even as they were forced to endure brutal weather conditions and grave deprivations. He left most of his men on the ice and struggled both to find rescue and then to bring that rescue back to those he left behind. It is an astounding tale of dangerous ocean waves, icy mountains, and desperate struggle. Reading Lansing’s account makes all the more vivid the experience of De Long and the slow, cruel deaths that awaited the crew of the Jeannette. While Sides delves far more deeply into the historical context of the age and the background details of the players, both authors manage the survival stories in the same tense and descriptive fashion.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Penguin. 2000. 320p. ISBN 9780141001821. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781101221570. HISTORICAL ADVENTURE
Fans of Sides will be well served by turning next to Philbrick, another grand writer of history and adventure books that are enhanced with contextual background, strong characterizations, and harrowing details of survival. In 1819, the whaleship Essex, plying its deadly trade thousands of miles from its home port on Nantucket, MA, was deliberately rammed and sunk by a sperm whale, forcing all hands into smaller boats and set adrift in the vast Pacific Ocean. Just as terrifying as it must have been for the Jeannette crew to see their ship sink while all around them spread the vast expanse of ice, the Essex crew were alone in a shifting sea, without water or food. Philbrick spares readers little of the trauma of dying at sea and the unthinkable steps the crew took to survive, but just as Sides elects to do in his lush telling, Philbrick expands upon the adventure and tragedy of the Essex to explore the wider story of the times, of Nantucket, the whaling industry, and much more. He meticulously paints a portrait of an age in this speedy and engrossing account, one that pairs well with Sides’s tale for its splendid blend of history, character, and quest.
Stark, Peter. Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. Ecco: HarperCollins. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780062218292. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062218315. HISTORICAL ADVENTURE
An engrossing story of an overland expedition and a sea journey is found in Stark’s blend of history and investigation involving great wealth, national ambition, and harrowing adventure. In 1810, John Jacob Astor launched a plot to seize squatters’ rights to a huge swath of the Pacific Coast by founding a fur trading post, to be called Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. Having bought the land up to the Rocky Mountains in the Louisiana Purchase and very much wanting to see national interests expanded to the Pacific rim of America, President Thomas Jefferson supported Astor’s efforts. The expedition would move on two fronts—one group would forge a land route through Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon and the other would sail around Cape Horn. Both trips were grave undertakings and both expeditions encountered great hardships and loss. Like Sides, Stark neatly blends the history of the period with the adventures of both expeditionary parties as he details the many tribulations encountered on the various terrains, the politics of the fur trade, and the founding of a new (if ultimately failed) outpost. His absorbing and quickly moving account should please those willing to trade the icy climes of the North Pole for the largely unknown lands west of the Rockies.
Dugard, Martin. The Explorers: A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success. S. & S. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781451677577. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781451677591. HIST
What makes certain of us leave the security and comfort of home and family and venture out into the unknown? Moreover, what allows us to arrive safely home again? That is the question that swirls around Sides’s account of De Long in subtle ways and it is the direct question Dugard asks in this analysis of the character traits that appear common among adventurers: curiosity, hope, passion, courage, independence, self-discipline, and perseverance. Reading this chronicle, in which fraught excursions and journeys illustrate each attribute, it is clear that many other qualities can be added to the list and that blind luck plays a role in almost all adventures as well. Even if Dugard’s catalog of virtues does not persuade fully (Melville also relied upon honor, for example), his entertaining and quick-moving account of a number of probes should please fans of Sides and permit them to immerse themselves in a wide range of enterprises told from a different slant.
Fleming. Fergus. Barrow’s Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy. Grove. 2001. 512p. ISBN 9780802137944. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780802197559. HIST
Fans of Sides who want to read more about the expeditionary fever that seems to take over certain generations should enjoy Fleming’s tale of John Barrow, the figure behind some of the 19th century’s greatest quests. Barrow, who has a small cameo in In the Kingdom of Ice, was in a very odd way much like James Gordon Bennett Jr. in that he was in a position to get things done and he very much enjoyed doing so. In particular, Barrow, as the second secretary to the admiralty, was able to send others on expeditions. He was obsessed with the blank places on the map of the world and thought that Britain should fill them in. He commissioned ships and men to explore such famed places as Timbuktu, to trace the course of the Niger River, and to find the Northwest Passage. Fleming details these quests with verve while at the same time delivering a fascinating history of Barrow himself. If your readers crave more adventure history, Fleming’s book is a great follow-up, particularly as arctic treks consume much of Barrow’s story.
Rideout, Tanis. Above All Things. Berkley. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780425268148. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101609200. F
Readers who most enjoyed the ways Sides wove into In the Kingdom of Ice the actual correspondence between De Long and his wife, Emma, and the approach in which he used Emma’s feelings as a counterpoint to the questing De Long undertook may want to seek out this debut novel, for Rideout’s fictional version of George Mallory’s attempt to scale Mount Everest also includes great attention to Mallory’s wife, Ruth. After his second failed attempt, Mallory promised Ruth he would not venture a third. He lied, or more charitably he was unable to keep his word. Rideout takes as much care with the visceral narrative of Mallory’s final and fatal attempt as she does with the intimate relationship between Ruth and George. At home with young children to raise, Ruth moves through a day, slowly marking time as she copes with the trauma of not knowing George’s moment-to-moment fate. In luminous prose and with a deft and graceful hand, Rideout delves into the mysteries of their marriage and examines what it is like to be left for something more seductive than yourself, your home, and your family.
Simmons, Dan. The Terror. Little, Brown. 2009. 992p. ISBN 9780316008075. pap. $9; ebk. ISBN 9780316003889. F
In the Kingdom of Ice is a nonfiction work of historical adventure, and, thus, Sides is bound by facts. While sections of his book are tense and thrilling, readers who want to immerse themselves in novels that are free to bend, even invent, situations should turn to Simmons’s gripping blend of historical adventure fiction and horror. Using as his frame the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin (one of Barrow’s undertakings), Simmons reimagines the fate of nearly 200 crew, all of whom are abandoned to the mercy of the ice owing to Franklin’s grave incompetence while seeking the Northwest Passage. Slowly the men begin to die—from weather, tainted food, and, most horribly, a creature that is hunting on the cold surface. Vivid descriptions of the ceaseless cold and the frozen ships serve as a haunting backdrop to the disintegration of the company as they fall out, drop dead, and are dragged away into the endless dark. Few men escape, and those who do face human-made terrors as well as natural and supernatural ones. It is a tense and menacing ride that should well satisfy Sides’s fans looking for a bit more punch.
All Is Lost. color. 106+ min. J.C. Chandor, dist. by Lionsgate. 2014. DVD UPC 031398185208. $26.98; Blu-ray UPC 031398185291. $29.99. Rated: PG-13. DRAMA
While sailing solo in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man faces catastrophe. A wayward shipping container breeches the hull of his boat, allowing water to overtake it. More disasters follow, including a fiercely raging storm, and the man is eventually forced to abandon his vessel for the dubious safety of a rubber lifeboat. Adrift with few supplies, the man has a faint hope that he will be spotted in the ocean’s shipping lanes. Fans of Sides and of all manner of adventure stories who want to visually and viscerally experience what it is like to go from day to day with no hope of survival will thrill to Robert Redford’s critically acclaimed performance of a sailor out of luck. The tension, the deliberate actions of our protagonist, the marked lack of dialog, and the vastness of the sea all combine to create a kick-in-the-gut movie full of stunning cinematography and a bare, elemental atmosphere that will leave viewers shaking.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. color & b/w. 97 min. George Butler, dist. by Sony. 2012. DVD UPC 043396413870. $20.99. DOCUMENTARY
De Long and the Jeannette expedition have yet to receive the attention of documentarians; therefore, those hoping to see frozen seas, ships locked in place by the cold, and ice-clogged oceans are best served by films focused on Ernest Shackleton. Granted his quest took place in the Antarctic, but the images of clear and deadly ice and the emotions of near-certain death are likely to transcend the poles. Few films on Shackleton are as fine as this NOVA production, narrated by Liam Neeson and based on the outstanding book The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander. Full of stirring re-creations, archival footage and photographs, and riveting interviews, the production offers viewers an immersive sense of what Shackleton and his 27 men suffered from 1914 to 1916 as they kept themselves alive and got themselves home.