In the Kingdom of Ice


Hampton Sides




Date Reviewed:

September 8, 2015

he complete title of this nonfiction book is: In the Kingdom of Ice The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. This book tells the story of a US expedition led by George Washington De Long and his attempt to sail to the North Pole via the Bering Strait in 1879. The USS Jeannette was a ship strengthened to withstand the crushing sea ice.

The origin of the Jeannette expedition is interesting. A wealthy New York publisher and owner, James Gordon Bennett, had achieved fame by financing Stanley's expedition to Africa, where he found Dr. Livingston. The resulting story brought huge profit and prestige to Bennett. The expedition to the north pole was undertaken with same level of sensationalism - a successful venture to the north pole by an American expedition would have been a huge achievement. Thus, De Long's expedition was privately financed, though the US Navy helped out in crucial ways.

The story gets really interesting once the Jeannette is crewed and sets sail for the north pole. Of course, it gets trapped in the ice, and the crew realizes that there is no warm water current flowing up to the north pole. (Hampton Sides informs the reader of the various theories held by 19th century scientists about what would be found at the north pole - one popular idea was that there would be an sea of warmth at the top of the world, you just had to sail through the ring of ice that surrounded it.)

It was curious to me that once the crew of the Jeannette realizes that they are not going to be able to sail to the North Pole, that they don't immediately abandon the ship and try to escape back to civilization. Instead, they spend another whole year on the ice, apparently just waiting. (The author skips this whole year of their journey - he advances the story to the following winter.)

Eventually, the moving sea ice crushes and destroys the Jeannette, and the crew find themselves stranded on the polar ice. Their only hope is to journey down to the north coast of Russia and meet with the hardy natives that populate Siberia. This part of the narrative is the most fascinating, it shows the men overcoming impossible odds and misery, battling weather and the cold while their health and equipment begins to fail around them.

Sides has access to the journals and letters written by the crewmembers of the Jeannette, so he is able to tell a compelling story about the challenges these men faced. It makes for compelling reading. I recommend this book. It would make a good movie too, though the ending might be a bit of a downer.