Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice--Reprise

Reprise, because I talked about this book in my last post. But at that point, I had just picked up the book. Now that the reading is done, I must tell you about this adventure.
USS Jeanette in Le Havre, France
I began slowly, reading in my free moments, relishing the deftness of Hampton Sides as he introduced the remarkable characters behind the USS Jeanette expedition to the Arctic Circle. George Washington DeLong, our captain, and his wife Emma; James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald and financier of the expedition; John Muir, environmentalist; August Petermann, noted German mapmaker and geographer.

He sets us firmly in the culture of a nation only a decade out of the Civil War, bursting with new technology, giant steam engines, prototypes of Edison's arc lamps and Bell's telephone, delighted with new tastes like Heinz ketchup and the strange new fruit called a banana, filled with a generation of young men men longing to prove themselves like their fathers and brothers had in the war.

By the end of the first section, we have a clear understanding of the current knowledge, or lack thereof, concerning the north pole and the arctic sea. From the mind-boggling assumptions of Symmes Hole to the concept of a warm, open polar sea.

By the time the expedition begins, as a reader, I am fully invested in the cast of characters, and even though I know something of the outcome, I'm committed for the ride.

Then I began finding time to read that wasn't free. I read over meals, between yoga classes, carried the book with me in the car when I left the house in hopes of catching a few moments to follow this incredible sea journey. It's a remarkable telling. Without ever dipping into subjectivity, Sides manages to make me feel like I'm in the heads of these characters. And I read desperately to understand the end, the struggle for survival, the international search and rescue of the men who survived.

One of the blurbs on the back of the book from Ian Frazier says: Read this book in two ways--fast, for the hair-raising excitement of what happens to the brave men of the Jeanette, and then slowly, to take in the clarity of the writing and the unshowy elegance of the structure. He's right! I was aware of the structure throughout, aware of the finesse and elegance of this telling, but I was reading fast. Now it's time to go back and look a little more closely at the technique.

A beautiful book, beautifully written. Read it.

Drawing of the Jeannette cairn in Siberia

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