The best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time. To be honest, the last few nonfiction books I read (or tried to read) had some rather boring bits in them. I skipped a few pages here and there reading Robert F. Gates’ Duty, and even, yes, while reading The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. I skipped at least one entire chapter in The Unthinkable. I outright gave up on the biography of Alexandre Dumas’ father (and I can’t even remember the name of it).
Not so for Kingdom of Ice. I hung on every single word. It’s a pretty long read, but I tore through it, faster even than The Goldfinch, no slender volume either. The author really brought to life all the larger-than-life characters that went into making the dream of Arctic exploration a reality in 1878: the eccentric millionaire newspaper owner, the half-mad, half-brilliant, all-business explorer, the explorer’s steadfast, fun-loving and devoted wife, the quirky crew. I could not put this book down. A far better adventure than any summer blockbuster in recent memory.
I’m actually not a big fan of history or nonfiction. That’s sort of why I’ve been trying to read it, to expand my horizons. I heard an interview with the author and that convinced me to give this one a go. He sounded very enthusiastic and excited about his topic, and I found his enthusiasm contagious. Once I got reading the book, I too fell in love with the time, the place, and the adventure. The voyage of the USS Jeanette was world-famous at the time, and when it became lost, the whole world wanted to know what had become of it. Books were written, medals were awarded, and then… the world forgot about it. Until Hampton Sides came along, dug deep into tons of original source material and first-hand accounts, and resurrected her for us to read about. Some of the best writing comes from the source material in fact, and Sides is an excellent curator of his material, saturating his telling of the story with the words of the people who were there.
There are also some great asides that never distract from the story, but add to the reader’s understanding of the historical, cultural and scientific context of the ill-fated voyage: what Thomas Edison provided for the journey, how this journey fit into the history of mapmaking, why John Muir tried to track down the ship after it went missing, and even what Stanley and Livingstone had to do with the journey. Tons of details, none of which weigh the story down, but all of which help propel it along.
I wish I could read it again for the first time!
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