“But why would anyone—officer, seaman, or scientist—volunteer for such a risky and difficult mission in the Arctic?”

Books on Tap’s first  virtual meeting of 2021 featured In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. A non-fiction examination of the 1879-1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette to discover the northwest passage was a suitable match for our own mostly home-bound winter of 2021. The New York Herald editor, James Gordon Bennett, was looking to finance another sensational expedition after his paper sponsored the “rescue” of Dr. Livingstone (and selling many papers in the process). He tapped experienced polar captain George Washington DeLong to lead a team of 32 men in search of a warm current that would lead them to a green island at the top of the world. Pretty quickly the men were trapped in ice for two years, at which point the hull breached and the ship quickly sank. The men then faced a thousand mile trek to Siberia with few supplies and fewer hopes of rescue. 

Sides packs lots of his research into this adventure tale, and much like the men of the Jeannette, we readers all bogged down at various points. It’s hard to make a marooned ship interesting, but then again we all made it though to the end compelled to find out what happened to our favorite characters, like Captain DeLong, engineer George Melville (yes, a relative of that other whale obsessed Melville) and James Ambler the ship’s doctor. 

DeLong comes through as the hero of the story, preparing the ship and choosing men whom he could rely on and who in turn trusted him. An optimistic man by nature, he met each setback with determination and grit. He was matched in his optimism by his wife Emma, whose letters Sides used as a primary source. Much like Elizabeth Hamilton, wife of Alexander, Emma kept her husband’s legacy alive. 

We discussed the bravery of the men, especially the rescuers who kept up their mission despite great risk to themselves. We also compared polar exploration to space exploration, both cold, inhospitable unknowns of vast differences. 

Sides was smart to pick an obscure voyage since none of our readers knew how it would end. Despite long stretches where the men go nowhere, we kept reading to see who survived and how their logs and diaries were preserved. We talked about the luck and chance that both benefited the crew at points and doomed some of them at others. In all, we agreed it was a journey best experienced at home with a warm drink. 

Books on Tap will meet again on February 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading  Switched On by John Elder Robison, which the library owns in multiple formats. 

More Information:
About the author
Other titles by Sides  
Interview with the author
Find images of the crew and the voyage at the Politics & Prose  recorded discussion
Map of the route
Logbooks in the National Archives 

Other Titles Recommended :
Disappearing Earth by Juila Phillips
The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Woolly : The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich
Other icy read alikes at JMRL Upcoming Meetings:
February 4: Switched On by John Elder Robison
March : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson
April :  Elevation by Stephen King

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