Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)
For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.
When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization. I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.
The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.
The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.
In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.
Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:
Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List
6 thoughts on “In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)”
Wow! I never knew about such an expedition. I wonder how they even got the idea of a tropical paradise in the north pole. Poor guys who went there with such illusions 😦
It was very interesting to read about how that idea got firmly fixed in the scientific mind — also to think about what dearly held theories of our own might end up being totally wrong.
Despite the length, this one flew by for me too! I agree that the author did a great job taking a lot of research and making it into a very engaging story.
It was one of my favorite books of the year, which I wouldn’t have expected going in. Glad you liked it too.