‘In the Kingdom of Ice’ recreates a disastrous Arctic voyage

08/17/2014 12:00 AM

08/16/2014 9:34 PM

An accomplished historian with a storyteller’s soul, Hampton Sides is at the top of his game with his latest book, In the Kingdom of Ice.

Sides vividly recreates a largely forgotten tale of 33 men who departed San Francisco in 1879 on a privately funded but publicly sanctioned U.S. Navy expedition hoping to be the first to reach The North Pole.

The protagonist is George Washington DeLong, a steady, decisive Naval officer and experienced Arctic explorer. DeLong’s heroic exploits from an earlier expedition capture the attention of a wily, eccentric tycoon, James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald.

In 1871, Bennett had financed Lord Henry Stanley’s African expedition in search of Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Stanley’s exclusive dispatches sparked an international sensation — and massive spikes in circulation that Bennett, a craven capitalist and libidinous High Society scourge, would attempt to recreate with his bottomless fortune.

The crew’s fate is sealed years before the USS Jeannette leaves port in the hubris of what turns out to be tragically bad science. DeLong, Bennett and their supporters in the geographic society parlors of the era had fallen in thrall to the theories of German cartographer August Petermann, who believed the North Pole was a navigable warm-water paradise surrounded by a protective ring of easily pierceable ice. Experienced British explorers, who had been trying in vain to reach the Pole for decades, considered Petermann’s warm-water Shangri-La theories delusional hooey. But the Americans, rising in profile on the world stage as the nascent nation celebrated its 100th birthday, forged ahead.

After years of preparation, the Jeannette set sail for the Bering Strait in a ship led by DeLong and a handful of naval officers but reinforced, provisioned and largely staffed with private sailors provided by Bennett (who also took the liberty of renaming the retrofitted vessel after his sister). The expedition stalled just two months into the journey and for the next 21 months, the ship was trapped and drifting between massive ice floes about 700 miles south of the Pole. That the crew didn’t mutiny during this long stretch of uncertainty and nights that lasted six months at a time is a testament to DeLong’s leadership and the crew’s loyalty and discipline to the shared cause.

Days after finally slipping free, the Jeannette was battered by more ice and sank. DeLong and the crew offloaded tiny boats and 40 sled dogs, setting off on an epic, almost 1,000-mile trek across the Arctic Circle and into the brutal wilderness of eastern Siberia.

The final third of Kingdom of Ice is a gripping story of unimaginable peril and hardship — the bulk of which won’t be spoiled here, except to note that use of the word “Terrible” in the subtitle might actually be an act of authorial understatement. This is not material for delicate sensibilities.

A frequent contributor to Outside magazine, Sides is the perfect modern author for this setting, where the physical terrain becomes a de facto lead character. As he has repeatedly proven in highly acclaimed past works such as Ghost Soldiers and Hellhound on His Trail, Sides has a novelist’s eye for the propulsive elements that lend momentum and dramatic pace to the best nonfiction narratives.

He has chosen a subject that not only captured and terrified the public imagination at the end of the Age of Exploration but also one that hasn’t been recast for mass consumption in several generations. Sides’ research is top-notch once again and — thanks to Naval historians and newspaper archivists — he has a cornucopia of authentic source material from which to draw. Sides evocatively quotes from the diaries of the pragmatic but decisive DeLong and several of his courageous crew members, effectively capturing the optimism of the era and the exhilaration of their quest into the unknown.

The fact that so many records from this meticulously documented voyage were preserved, much less recovered, is almost as amazing as the steadfast men who experienced it.

Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.

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