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On firm, even mesmerizing footing in treating devices nautical and details of both land and sea, first-novelist Nichols (a memoir, Sea Change, 1997) can’t quite bring off the odd lot of shipmates in this ill-begotten voyage, a rich man’s folly into the Arctic in pursuit of trophy game at the height of the Depression. In keeping with its epigraph from Conrad, there are two primary forces at work in this story’s heart of darkness: down-on-his-luck Boden, a true seaman and former captain who abandoned a ship that never sank and got branded unfairly to all—including himself” as a coward; and rags-to-riches Schenck, for whom all obstacles are trifles in the gratification of his desire of the moment. First linked aboard a speedboat prototype that Schenk’s putting through its paces on Long Island Sound, trying to impress would-be investors and Boden, as its future captain, the true adventure for the two awaits, as the tycoon also wants him at the helm of a ship that will carry Schenck and his family to the Arctic—which Boden knows and loves from previous voyages—in order to hunt. The sleek yacht he eventually decides to use comes with a captain, however, so Boden is cast off, but he decides nonetheless to make the trip as a stoker in the engine room. From there he proves his dead-reckoning skills and knowledge of local waters second to none, though he can’t keep the ship or her crew safe: the very first expedition ashore goes awry in a midsummer snowstorm and two men die. Timely help from Indians reunites the hunting party and the ship, but not before an act of depravity renders the natives implacably hostile. And then, barely having set course for home, Schenck singlehandedly turns his beautiful boat into a shipwreck. Colorful, inventive, intensely evocative, but overstocked with points of view—even a polar bear has his say, as he makes a meal of one of the crew.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-7867-0664-3
Page count: 352pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1999


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