A tidy, methodical look into some of the perilous expeditions to the Arctic, especially S.A. Andrée’s ill-fated hydrogen-balloon expedition of 1897.
New Yorker writer Wilkinson (The Protest Singer, 2009, etc.) fixes on the explorers who set out with megalomaniacal intent in search of a Northwest Passage through the pitiless frigid northern regions, such as Henry Hudson, Sir John Franklin, Fridtjof Nansen and Adolphus Greely. When Swedish patent officer and engineer Andrée first proposed his plan to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon, the legendary American explorer Greely denounced the proposal as not viable. In fact, Andrée believed the Arctic ideal for aircraft travel, rather than sledge, which only ran into icy impediments. He proposed taking only two other men up in the balloon, steered by guide ropes and sails and bearing many innovations, and underwritten by Alfred Nobel and the king. Liftoff from Dane’s Island had to be postponed a year because of unfavorable winds, but the balloon finally took off July 11, 1897, intending to reach the North Pole in three days. Once it vanished from sight, however, it took 33 years to learn more or less what happened to the men; the discovery in 1930 of their remains and diaries reveals that they did not reach the pole, but wrecked on land and died of exhaustion and cold as the winter set in. Wilkinson, ever elegant and thorough, fleshes out his account by delineating the previous expeditions of Greely and Nansen in order to get at the motivations in the minds of this “parade of fanatics heading for the deep places.”
Beautifully focused and composed.