The grim tale of an Arctic expedition that had “doomed” stamped on it from the start, told (at times over-told) by Niven (The Ice Master, not reviewed).
“She was a young and unskilled woman who headed into the Arctic in search of money and a husband,” Niven writes of Ada Blackjack. What Blackjack hadn’t bargained on, and what gives Niven’s story what zing it has, is that famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had decided, without any authority, that Wrangel Island ought to be a British possession and that “any claim that might have belonged to the Russians or the Americans had lapsed.” The island would make a nifty air base, a possible radio and meteorological station, and be helpful in nipping Japanese imperial aspirations. Stefansson put together the expedition with four men and Blackjack—the team’s seamstress—and intimated that he, too, would be among the explorers, though he had no intention of traveling with the group. The team soon found that Wrangel was an acquired taste: gloomy, rocky, cloudy, stormy, icy, and damn cold. When things started getting difficult (Niven suggests that the unpredictable Blackjack was suffering from “Arctic Hysteria”) and the supply ship failed to materialize—Stefansson had run out of money—three of the men struck out for Nome, leaving Blackjack with the remaining scurvy-ruined member. Two years later, Blackjack alone met the rescue party—heroic, and yet Niven fails to lift Blackjack’s achievement out of the tedium of days: gathering wood, hunting, caring for a man who took a long time to die. There’s little transport in the details—“On April 24, she washed her hair”—and the resulting brouhaha over the expedition’s diaries serves only to highlight the tawdriness of the affair.
The hard challenge that defeats Niven: making an exciting story when morbidity and cheap behavior are the main ingredients. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)