“In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette” by Hampton Sides. Doubleday, 2014. $28.95.
There’s something deeply satisfying about reading a book about polar exploration in the middle of a blazing hot Louisiana summer.
Especially if the writing is as good as Hampton Sides’.
In his latest book, Sides follows the perilous journey of the USS Jeannette and her crew as, in the aftermath of the Civil War, they journeyed to find out the nature of the North Pole.
It’s mind-boggling to modern America, with our smartphones and Google maps and GPS systems, to not know what a significant part of the Earth looks like at any given time. We can peer over fences and across oceans with a single tap, wandering the streets of far off cities without ever leaving our sofas.
But there was a time, in the not-too-distant past, where we didn’t know what Earth’s poles looked like. Were they verdant paradises, made tropical by a swirling ocean current? Maybe there were gigantic holes that went clear to the planet’s core. Or maybe they were just calm, open sea, a sort of roundabout at the extremes of the planet.
Voyage after ill-fated voyage took off to explore the last frontiers of Earth, each one usually tasked with finding what remained of the preceding expedition.
What remained was usually a corpse, if they were lucky, or a few relics and poorly informed guesses if they were not.
George Washington De Long was determined that his trip would be different. Bankrolled by one of the world’s richest and most reckless men, James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald, and backed by the U.S. Navy, he prepared meticulously.
Sides goes into exquisite detail of De Long and Bennett’s bona fides and planning for the usually fatal polar journey. Each page prickles with danger, even though the Jeannette doesn’t set off until well into the book. The amount of preparation for the trip underscores the danger the crew would be in.
The Arctic isn’t just a setting. In Sides’ hands, it becomes a living, breathing character, terrifying in its obstinate determination to snuff the life out of any invader. There are, as Sides shows, many ways to die in the cold. His attention to detail makes a story that’s equal parts suspense and tedium sing. As the Jeannette drifts, frozen in pack ice, Sides brings each member of the expedition — even the four-legged ones — into sharp relief. By the time the real drama happens, the reader is as locked into the story as the Jeannette is in the ice.
If you already know the Jeannette’s fate, Sides’ attention to detail and storytelling are worth hearing the story again.
If you don’t know what happened, don’t skip ahead. Don’t turn to your smartphone. Don’t Google the Jeannette or De Long. Let Sides tell the story. You won’t be disappointed.