I’d put In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette up there with Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing), Undaunted Courage (Stephen Ambrose), and Unbroken (Lauren Hillenbrand) for terrific non-fiction narratives about toughness, survival and determination.
I was not familiar with the ill-fated polar expedition of the USS Jeanette before reading In the Kingdom of Ice. If you already know the general series of events, I can’t say how much Sides’ version adds to the details. That said, the narrative here is utterly engrossing from the get-go and the plain prose is clear as the water in a warm, Mediterranean cove.
Sides starts by profiling James Gordon Bennett Jr., the colorful owner of the New York Herald who backed the venture with cash and publicity. Without the brash newspaper owner’s zealous interest in stunts and driving news, Sides makes clear, none of this would have happened. At least, not in the same way. The thirst for knowledge of the North Pole and its surroundings—is it open water to the pole, or something else?—was strong in the 1870’s. Theories were in ample supply. Sides traces the development of the project from drawing board to launch and puts it clearly in the context of the science at the time.
Like reading about the adventures of challenges of men like Ernest Shackleton, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Louis Zempirini, reading In the Kingdom of Ice becomes an immersion into a different era, or so it seems, of mental and physical fortitude. Reading this, it’s hard not to wonder at which point you might have given up—hope, sanity, wherewithal, whatever.
Hampton Sides recounts the slow-motion disaster in detail, but the focus throughout is on the leadership skills of Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong and the decisions he makes to keep 32 other souls alive as they are stuck in the ice (for 21 months) and then forced to make a months-long dash across the frozen emptiness for the northern coast of Siberia. Repeatedly, the men are knocked down to the edge of survival, forced to make decisions even in the most agonizing human situations.
DeLong keeps meticulous records and journals so at first you may think you know how this all turns out, since the journals survive. (Spoiler alert: don’t jump to conclusions.)
The ending of this sprawling adventure, in the bitter weather of the delta of the Lena River, is as harrowing as anything else out there on the ice. Both grand and terrible? No doubt.
In the Kingdom of Ice is a powerful tale, extremely well told. I also enjoyed Sides’ book about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hellhound on His Trail. Both are highly recommended.