A flabbergasting, if leisurely paced, story of survival in the Far North during the 18th century, shrouded by the enjoyable mystery of half-understood but decidedly atavistic circumstances.
A voracious fan of adventure-travel literature, Roberts (Escape from Luciania, 2002, etc.) came across a fragmentary report of four Russian walrus-hunters who were shipwrecked on the Svarlbard Archipelago in the high Arctic—a collection of barren plateaus, made of basalt, glaciers, and bad weather, wild and elemental and described precisely here—and survived for six years, from 1743 until 1749, having carried ashore exactly one musket, a bag of flour, and a pouch of tobacco. Although Roberts must rely chiefly on the narrative of Pierre Le Roy, whom he takes to task (at times to the point of irritation) for “scholarly pretension,” “odd discrepencies,” and the “annoyance and distrust” he provokes in Roberts, he is also an archival ferret, digging up plenty of tantalizing references. But most of all, Roberts is simply agog that the men survived so long in a treeless place fabled for its polar-bear population, a creature that considers humans altogether choice fare. The story is a chain of quests—of “the shadowy Klingstedt, the fugitive artifacts, the vanished ‘X’ on the map.” Roberts and a small band of comrades visit the island where the Russian whalers likely spent their 2,000 days. He learns, from talking to northern Russian locals, how the men may have passed the long, dark time: keeping Saints' Days, doing daily chores, and engaging in the art of knot-tying (“each [hunter] ties a rope into an endless number of knots, now again unties it, and thus, now tying the knots, now undoing them again, spends nearly half the winter”).
Caveats aside, dogged research and hard travel to distant places make for a gem in the literature of survival under dire conditions.