As the subtitle suggests, there are multiple threads to this well-documented account of courage and chicanery in the Arctic.
Taliaferro (Tarzan Forever, 1999, etc.), a former senior editor at Newsweek, has packed his story with a host of vivid characters: dedicated and not-so-dedicated missionaries, wheelers and dealers, sea captains, politicos, stranded whalers, Lapp reindeer herders, goldminers and beleaguered Alaskan natives. Central to all this are the amazingly sturdy and resourceful Lopps, Tom and Ellen. Unfazed by the murder of another missionary, they try to bring both Christianity and a better life to the Alaskan natives around Cape Prince of Wales. Sheldon Jackson, the general agent for education in Alaska, had proposed importing trainable reindeer, along with Lapp reindeer herders, from Europe, at first to improve the lot of the caribou-hunting Alaskan natives, but later as part of a grand plan to provide mail service and transportation for white settlers. This plan was well under way when, in 1897, a group of whaling ships became ice-bound in the Arctic Ocean. With their crews believed to be on the brink of starvation, San Francisco newspapers demanded that the federal government act, and subsequently Treasury Secretary Gage authorized the captain of a Revenue Cutter Service ship to contact Lopp and persuade him to drive his large herd of reindeer several hundred miles north in the dead of winter to come to the aid of the whalers. Taliaferro weaves into one highly readable story the travails of this Overland Relief Expedition, the life of plucky Ellen Lopp and her ever-growing brood of little Lopps, the tale of the stranded but definitely not starving whalers and the concurrent gold rush that was to change Alaska forever.
The grand but failed scheme to make reindeer the camels of the north is in itself a story that deserves to be better known, and Taliaferro does it justice.