Review: In The Kindgom Of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides


About In The Kingdom Of Ice

New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides returns with a white-knuckle tale of polar exploration and survival in the Gilded Age In the late nineteenth century, people were obsessed by one of the last unmapped areas of the globe: the North Pole. No one knew what existed beyond the fortress of ice rimming the northern oceans, although theories abounded. The foremost cartographer in the world, a German named August Petermann, believed that warm currents sustained a verdant island at the top of the world. National glory would fall to whoever could plant his flag upon its shores.

James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric and stupendously wealthy owner of The New York Herald, had recently captured the world's attention by dispatching Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone. Now he was keen to re-create that sensation on an even more epic scale. So he funded an official U.S. naval expedition to reach the Pole, choosing as its captain a young officer named George Washington De Long, who had gained fame for a rescue operation off the coast of Greenland. De Long led a team of 32 men deep into uncharted Arctic waters, carrying the aspirations of a young country burning to become a world power. On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco to cheering crowds in the grip of "Arctic Fever."

The ship sailed into uncharted seas, but soon was trapped in pack ice. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the hull was breached. Amid the rush of water and the shrieks of breaking wooden boards, the crew abandoned the ship. Less than an hour later, the Jeannette sank to the bottom,and the men found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies. Thus began their long march across the endless ice—a frozen hell in the most lonesome corner of the world. Facing everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and frosty labyrinths, the expedition battled madness and starvation as they desperately strove for survival.

With twists and turns worthy of a thriller, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most unforgiving territory on Earth.

About the Author

A native of Memphis, HAMPTON SIDES is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.

My Thoughts

(Review is based on an electronic advanced reader's copy of the book and was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.)

With works of historical non-fiction, it's important to contextualize the narrative within the broader scope of the era being discussed. While a journey to the arctic is all kinds of riveting, there still needs to be some semblance of motivation, either on a personal scale or for larger reasons. Author and historian Hampton Sides reflects wonderfully on these aspects in the book's early chapters. Readers get a sense of not only the main players and peripheral characters, but of a divided nation that is recovering from the Civil War and seeking a rallying point to unify under, while also still growing thanks to Manifest Destiny and the purchase of Alaska from Russia. It's a period of nationalistic pride, despite the still-young nation having a laughable Navy in comparison to European countries, and the Arctic Circle represents the "final frontier" of discovery. Rumors and educated guesses abound at what would be found at the North Pole, with much of the speculation and hope revolving around the discovery of a warm oasis, a dream fed by Viking and Greek myths that were immortalized by mapmakers, and, ultimately, the spirit of these hazy, safe concepts captured in the first modern rendition of Santa Claus by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1860s. The US, and, in fact, much of the world, were caught in the grip of Arctic Fever.

That fever, thankfully, extends quite well to the written word and makes In The Kingdom Of Ice a briskly compelling read. Using original sources, in the form of correspondences, ship logs, personal papers, and documents from Jeanette housed in Washington's National Archives, author Hampton Sides is able to vividly bring to life the central Navy men aboard the ship, as well as the vitally important ancillary characters, such as arctic commander George De Long's wife, Emma, and newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett, owner of the Herald. Bennett, whose wealth is responsible for the funding of the journey north, becomes a larger-than-life figure, full of vim and vigor and drunken escapades. We get a terrific sense of De Long's happy marriage, and the affection that Emma has for her ice-bound husband is apparent in her personal letters.

Sides has gone to great lengths to capture the human spirits of those involved, which makes their ordeals all the more difficult to bear.

The historical elements of the narrative, from the Jeanette's send-off in San Francisco to its final resting place in the Arctic, are candidly reproduced, but never embellished or sensationalized. There were certainly moments that made me squirm, such as the depictions of frostbite and the rotting effects of the constant cold wetness in the Arctic, but Sides handles it with methodical cool. He's not writing to gross people out, or reveling in the gore. His reportage is precise but still deeply moving, particularly in the book's denouement when the fate of the Jeanette's crew becomes apparent.

In The Kingdom Of Ice is terrific account of America's early endeavors to reach the North Pole and it deserves to find a wide audience of readers. The trials and terrors the crew face, and the uncertain realities that affect their companions at home, make for a marvelous and gripping account. Sides is a masterful historian and a damn good writer. Highly recommended.

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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