"Most of us are out of our right minds. I fear for the future." --Lt. Adolphus Greely Twenty-five men went north. Only six returned alive. In July 1881, an expedition comprised mainly of American soldiers sailed off to establish a scientific base in the remote Arctic region of Lady Franklin Bay. What happened then is a remarkable three-year saga of human achievement and human fallibility, of heroism, hardship, bad luck and worse judgment. Compounded by deliberate political negligence back home, particularly on the part of Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, and increasingly fierce dissension in its own camp, the expedition's fate, and those of its would-be rescuers, would eventually encompass starvation, mutiny, suicide, shipwreck, execution . . . and cannibalism.Until now, the story has been only partly known and full of dark riddles, but more than seven years of research by acclaimed historian Leonard Guttridge have uncovered journals, letters, diaries, and other documentary material that for the first time provide intimate day-by-day details of the swirling thoughts, feelings, and events of that ill-fated voyage--from turbulent birth to bizarre and tragic finale. The result is a work of nonfiction narrative that reads like a novel--a raw, vivid, harrowing adventure, brilliantly told.
That is the sad truth of nineteenth and early twentieth century Arctic exploration. From John Ross's sighting of the non-existent "Croker Mountains" to the crew of the Karluk a century later, the tales of officers making absurd decisions, of sailors out of control, of choices made for no known reason are endless. There are a lot of reasons. Scurvy leads the list. Seasonal affective disorder certainly doesn't help. Other dietary problems may contribute.
Sometimes, the problems began before the expedition even sailed. The Greeley expedition to Ellesmere Island in 1881, one of the more ambitious attempts to reach the high arctic, is a case in point. The planning was simply fuddled. This left the members of the expedition with no means of survival and little hope of timely rescue. As a result, the majority died, miserably, and charges of cannibalism flew.
The tale is certainly dramatic, needing only a good telling.
This telling is, well, fair. It was simply too easy to get lost. Two or three times it seemed as if everybody was about to die and we must be at the end of the actual expedition. Then -- surprise! -- everybody goes on doing whatever they were doing. People died, periodically, but it seems as if the narrative bounces back and forth from the end to somewhere in the middle. It may be strictly chronological, but if so, it loses the thread of the chronology.
This probably still qualifies as the best popular account of one of the disastrous miscalculations that have so marred Arctic explorations. But you might want to take notes as you read it. It's too easy to get lost otherwise.
Under Guttridge's pen, the story is extremely difficult to follow and unskillfully woven. (I defy you to find a paragraph in this book that does not mention at least three different people... it just becomes a confusing jumble of names all to frequently.) I found myself skimming and skipping page after boring page before I finally put down the book for good.
I love a good arctic (or antarctic) exploration story... there are tons of great books out there focused on the trials and tribulations of different expeditions. Unfortunately, this is not one of them.