In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
Doubleday, 2014. Hardcover, 454 pages.
It took me a while to get around to reading this book. I’ve had the advance reader’s copy since just after the title was published and it kept getting pushed to the back of the reading list. Other titles piqued my interest more. Many still do, but I wanted to still make sure I read In the Kingdom of Ice. Luckily, it turned out to be a quick read.
In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of one of several Polar expeditions. In this one, the crew of the USS Jeannette under the command of George Washington DeLong planned to explore the Arctic via the Bering Strait. DeLong had caught the Arctic exploration bug after assisting in a rescue mission off Greenland’s northern coast. Helped by the newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett who funded the mission and August Heinrich Petermann‘s maps, DeLong planned his voyage. He selected a ship in Europe and it underwent two refits, one in France, and a second after sailing the ship to San Francisco. While the second refit was underway, DeLong prepared supplies and gathered a crew for the rigorous journey. Throughout this, his wife, Emma, was his staunch supporter, constant companion, and co-planner. However, as a woman, Emma would not undertake the voyage herself.
The voyage began during the summer of 1879 with the idea that the Arctic featured an Open Polar Sea that would allow DeLong and his men to travel Canada’s northern “coast” to Greenland, exploring along the route, including the mythical Wrangel Land, and being the first to visit the North Pole. That theory was soon proven wrong, as approximately a month after they voyage began, the crew found itself and its ship trapped in ice in Arctic. And there they would remain for two years, floating on ice in freezing conditions. Luckily, they had food and engineer George Melville, a man would could create anything out of whatever was on-hand. Readers will follow each action of these crewmen as they undergo this ordeal.
After nearly two years, the people at home began to wonder what became of the expedition. Rescue missions went out and returned with little news. Worry grew, especially that of Emma DeLong. Sadly, the worry was justified as the men’s situation became precarious, eventually sinking the Jeannette. Using the sleds and sled dogs,the men set out on a journey across the ice to Siberia. This section of the book is not for the faint of heart. Many hard decisions had to be made, frostbite was rampant, and starvation becomes an issue. I cannot say more without ruining the story, but there is a reason by “terrible” is in the book’s subtitle.
Overall, I found In the Kingdom of Ice to be eye-opening and educational. I never knew that there were that many theories in the later 1800s about the Arctic–those were interesting to read about, even if many are laughable to modern ears. I also never realized how harsh life on the ice can be; Jack London and Gary Paulsen‘s Brian’s Saga (starts’ with Hatchet) downplay the issue (except in London’s short story “To Build a Fire” [summary]). And it was interesting to see how the men survived on the Jeannette while it was trapped, especially Melville’s inventions and how they helped. And the love story between DeLong and Emma was a wonderful addition, especially as Emma held out hope until the end. There love was clearly one that was true and worthy of a novel itself to further flesh out the story, even if the writer would have to make educated guesses to fill in the gaps history leaves.
However, this is not something I would typically read. Not having read another non-fiction work on the topic, I have nothing to compare it to. I also have no desire to read more; other historical topics hold my interest much more. Still, sometimes one needs to try something new to expand their knowledge and this book did that for me.
Have you already had the chance to read In the Kingdom of Ice? If so, what were your thoughts? Have you read something similar to recommend to others?