A humdrum recounting of a little-known episode in the history of Arctic exploration.
Approved by a joint congressional resolution of March 8, 1870, the exploratory voyage of USS Polaris was the first formal American effort to reach the North Pole. Commanded by a practiced Arctic explorer, Charles Francis Hall, the vessel’s crew was an unlikely mix of native-born Americans, Eskimos, Englishmen, and Germans; Europeans figured prominently, writes journalist Henderson, “since the most adventurous Americans were going West rather than to sea.” Under the leadership of a prize pair of martinets, the German contingent immediately fell afoul of its American counterpart, which numbered more than its share of incompetents and drunks, and Hall and his lieutenants seemed disinclined to do much about the rising tension. Hall died not long after reaching Arctic waters; Henderson suggests that he was poisoned and hints that the ship’s German doctor did the captain in, though only the most circumstantial of evidence exists to support his charge. Without Hall, order fell apart; after a collision with an iceberg breached the ship’s hull, Polaris was abandoned, but not before 19 of the crewmembers were marooned elsewhere, left to fend for themselves on an ice floe on which they would drift for a distance of more than 1,500 miles over 197 days. Two years after setting sail, the survivors were rescued, and the story of Polaris and subsequent US government tribunals filled newspapers around the world. The strange story is inherently interesting, and good fodder for a screenplay, but Henderson writes so unimaginatively and ploddingly that only the most determined Arctic-exploration buff will stick around to find out how it all ends.
Hall’s ill-fated expedition deserves better.