In the Kingdom of Ice:
The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
By Hampton Sides
Emerging from the Civil War in the late 1800s, the new United States was eager to prove itself on the international stage. In an effort to show its military might, its power as a player on the international stage, but in a peaceful way – supported by citizens in both the north and the south – the U.S. entered the quest to discover the North Pole and the “open polar sea.”
In 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and a crew of roughly 30 men set sail from California for the Arctic. A Navy expedition funded by The New York Herald newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, the crew expected to reach the North Pole and return within 3 years, perhaps discovering (and claiming for the U.S.) a new island or two along the way. De Long did discover a few islands on the expedition, but he never made it to the North Pole. Instead, after being ice-locked for what felt like an eternity, he and the crew were forced to abandon the sinking Jeannette and make their way through ice and water – on whaling boats they had to carry over the ice – south to Siberia, and then on to a Siberian village where they could finally seek help. This book is the story of all of this, and more.
Review/Recommendation: I picked up this book on a whim, after seeing it while standing in line at the grocery store. I had read Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides years ago, and still remember what a wonderful book it was. That memory set the bar pretty high for In the Kingdom of Ice, and the book did not disappoint.
The story behind this book was fascinating. Unlike the description on the back of the book – which would have you believe the book was almost exclusively about De Long’s journey from shipwreck to Siberia – the book detailed De Long’s entire expedition, beginning long before he stepped foot on the Jeannette. It begins with the origins of De Long’s obsession with Arctic exploration and the myth of the ice-locked open Arctic sea, and then details his research into the Arctic, his efforts to get the journey approved and funded, the search for a suitable ship and crew, and the journey the Jeannette took from the East coast to the West, where it would finally begin its voyage to the Arctic. It concludes with the crew’s slow retreat from it’s northern most position, back down to Siberia, after abandoning ship.
Despite the huge amount of research Sides undoubtedly conducted in the writing of the book, In the Kingdom of Ice is both engaging and interesting. Sides does a wonderful job weaving the facts into the personal stories of De Long and the other crew members, showing their humanity and their bravery in the process. While the focus was De Long, the reader was treated to a snapshot of almost everyone one of the crew members, each one a hero of the expedition in their own way.
I can’t recommend this book enough.