The author of Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps (2001) returns with another rousing real-life adventure: a chronicle of the determination, madness, mendacity, suffering, and incredible endurance of the men who sought to be the first to stand at the North Pole.
Picking up where Barrow’s Boys (1998) ended, with the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1847, the author shows Sir John Franklin’s successors one after another learning the bitter lessons of life and death north of the Arctic Circle. He closes with the passing, in 1940, of the widow of Lieutenant George Washington De Long, who starved and froze to death in 1881 while searching for the mythical “thermal gateway” to the Pole. De Long’s sufferings, horrible as they were, are common fare on Fleming’s menu, along with foolishness, foolhardiness, and fecklessness. For decades, explorers sought the “Open Polar Sea,” a warm lake of water at the Pole that putatively pushed the icecap and its baby burgs southward. Another popular theory held that both poles featured gateways to the inner earth, where civilizations waited to be discovered. Once again, Fleming displays razor-edged wit and an unerring sense of what we want to read. He tells of a polar bear dragging a doctor around by the head. Of temperatures so cold that human exhalations freeze and hit the ground with a tinkle. Of a dog’s tail freezing to the ground. Of desperate men reduced to eating their own dogs—and eyeing one another hungrily. We learn, too, about continent-sized egos, especially that of Robert Edwin Peary, whose controversial claim to have reached the Pole Fleming disputes. All the polar lunatics and heroes are here: Kane, Hayes, Hall, Hegemann, Weyprecht, Osborn, Nansen, Cook (liar extraordinaire, says the author), and Amundsen, each one reanimated by fluid, vivid prose.
A superb, well-researched saga, crackling with intelligence and wit. (4 maps, 24 pp. b&w photographs, not seen)