05 August 2014

Review: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

The adventurer in me has always wished that I could have been one of the first people in recorded history to have explored some part of the earth. I imagine the wonders of seeing a pristine landscape or being the first to document a strange new species.

Despite my willingness to take a covered wagon across the Plains or to venture into the Amazon rain forest, I don't think I would have liked to traveled to the North Pole in the days before radio communication, down coats, air support, and icebreakers. But almost from the first time George De Long sailed the cold north seas, he was taken with the beauty of the Arctic and the challenge of finding the pole and claiming it for his country.

Hampton Sides, in In the Kingdom of Ice, focuses on De Long's 1878 attempt to sail the U.S.S. Jeannette through the iceberg-riddled Arctic Ocean right to the top of the world. As I mentioned in the Bloggers Recommend newsletter, "Although we already know the outcome of the ill-fated journey, Sides carefully sets the stage and builds the tension, creating an adventure story as exciting and emotional as any novel."

Sides begins by building the time period: In the late nineteenth century, the United States was finally moving past the Civil War and even the more-recent fall of Custer at the Little Bighorn. As the country reached its centennial, the world was beginning to take notice of the young, energetic country with its can-do attitude.

Running hand in hand with this optimism, America and the world was caught up in what was called the polar problem. There was competition among countries and much discussion of just how the North Pole could be reached. Sides likens this "Arctic Fever" with the effort that went into landing on the Moon. The problem would be solved not just with technology and maps but by brave men who were willing to risk everything to be the first.

Relying on firsthand accounts (letters, journals, photographs) and newspaper articles, Sides introduces the major players, fleshing out their personalities as if they were characters in a novel. From the millionaire newspaper man James Gordon Bennett Sr. to the German geographer August Petermann and De Long's wife, Emma, everyone had an opinion and/or wanted to be in on the action, even if from the safety of a New York City apartment.

Sides's talent is such that, as the Jeannette sails out of San Francisco Bay, turning north to the Bering Strait, I felt the hope and excitement, the potential glory and fame. Never mind that I already knew what the crew was going to face once they entered the ice fields. Even while De Long survives two years of icebound isolation and then when the ship finally succumbs to nature and the crew is forced to set off across the floe--pulling boats, instruments, and dwindling food supplies--I was still cheering the men on.

But as the reality of the white wilderness came home to roost, the tension, drama, and (yes, finally) despair of De Long's situation hit me hard. The terror of being lost on the ice, of discovering the maps are no good, of facing starvation . . . the final journal entries. Sides makes it personal and vivid, without losing the evident respect he has for the men who volunteered for the expedition.

Forget those boring high-school classes. In In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides takes history to a whole new level. The story of George De Long and his harrowing journey to the northern seas is an easily accessible and exciting read. Sides has guaranteed that the explorer's name and accomplishments will not be forgotten.

Note on the photos: Historic photos in the public domain (click images to see them full size)

Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385535373
Source: Review (eGalley) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


rhapsodyinbooks 8/5/14, 8:18 AM  

I can't wait to read this. In every book I have read by him, he makes history seem more like a thriller novel!

Heather 8/5/14, 8:59 AM  

I've read a few books about the Franklin Expedition and found them equally as compelling. Thanksf or sharing this.

bermudaonion 8/5/14, 9:18 AM  

I love to travel and explore but I'm not sure I'm brave enough to be the first person to venture somewhere. I'm glad other people are willing to be trailblazers! this book sounds terrific!

Beth Hoffman 8/5/14, 10:24 AM  

I think my husband would love this book. Thanks for the recommendation, my friend. I'm off to order it for him right now!

Daryl 8/5/14, 10:56 AM  

i adore travel, i wish i could do more than one or two trips out of town/country a year .. but i am also someone who loves/needs indoor plumbing and other unadventurous amenities … so you wont find me camping out or exploring unexplored continents … but it does sound like a good read .. thanks!

Sarah (Sarah's Book Shelves) 8/5/14, 7:25 PM  

I loved Sides' Ghost Soldiers and, while the topic of this one doesn't excite me as much, I have a feeling it could be one of those books where the storytelling and writing manages to make a great book out of something you're not even interested in (like The Boys in the Boat for me).

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