Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on December 11, 2019
One of my favorite genres is non-fiction, exploration accounts. From Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (Lewis and Clark) to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Alan Morehead’s White Nile and Blue Nile, accounts of the travails faced by explorers have always fascinated me.
One subset of this genre is polar exploration. I’ve read several works whose subject was the Northwest Passage and the Franklin Expedition. I’ve read of the journeys of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance and the race to the South Pole, involving Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott. In all of these works, many of which detailed the history of polar exploration, I do not recall ever hearing of the Jeanette Expedition of 1880, the subject of this book. This is somewhat surprising, because it seems to have been something of a seminal event in the exploration of the northern polar regions.
At the time, little was known of the polar regions. Many surmised that the northern pole was covered by a warm sea, encircled by a girdle of ice which merely had to be pierced in order to access the ice free sea. The Franklin Expedition had previously been lost seeking a Northwest Passage, but attempts to sail to the northern pole were very few, and dismal failures.
In the late 1870s, an American naval officer George De Long, teamed up with the owner of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett to finance and outfit an expedition to explore the polar region and attempt a sea-based journey to the North Pole. Supported by the U. S. Navy and assisted by many of the leading “experts” on polar exploration, the group purchased a suitable craft, retrofitted it and provisioned it, departing from San Francisco headed north for the Bering Strait.
As it turns out, almost everything they were told to expect was wrong. Their maps were almost universally inaccurate and they were soon captured by the pack ice. This book details all of the preparations for the trip, the personalities involved and the brutal results of their journey. After finishing the book, I am somewhat astonished that I have never seen reference to the expedition, even in passing. It is an amazing and compelling story of human endurance and tragedy. I recommend it not just for those who have an interest in polar exploration, but for anyone who enjoys history and/or human interest stories in general.