Henderson (Fatal North, 2001, etc.) offers another nail-biting true adventure, this one involving the turn-of-the-20th-century rivalry between contemporaries who both claimed to be the first man to the Pole.
Initially, their shared passion for the Far North brought together Navy man Robert Peary, a bulldog of an explorer, and the gentle physician Frederick Cook. But after Peary invoked his right as expedition leader and refused to allow crew doctor Cook to present a paper on the medical and reproductive practices of the Eskimo, their paths diverged. Peary continued his assaults on the Pole, failing repeatedly, while Cook diversified his explorations to include climbing Mt. McKinley (he was the first man to ever reach its summit) and exploring Antarctica (he was the first American to explore both the northern and southern polar regions). Henderson makes their days vivid, with much discussion of such ancillary characters as Peary’s wife, who insisted on traveling with him whenever possible, and events like Cook’s near miss in getting funding from Andrew Carnegie. This engrossing story of two divergent yet entwined fates climaxes with twin journeys to the North Pole. Both men claimed to have reached the “Big Nail” (as the Eskimos dubbed it) within days of each other. Henderson comes down squarely on Cook’s side, painting the doctor as an honest man, interested only in exploration, who was ill-equipped to deal with Peary’s desperation, willingness to discredit his onetime colleague, and generally dirty tactics. A judge friendly with the Peary family even managed to throw Cook into jail for 14 years. For the reader, the pain of witnessing Cook’s vilification is almost counterbalanced by his exoneration 75 years later—but not quite.
The debate remains open, but Henderson provides plenty of fuel for Cook loyalists.