The first American expedition to the North Pole provides a chilling twist on the true-crime genre in this historical detective story by novelist Parry (That Fateful Lighting, not reviewed).
In 1871, the Grant administration hoped that a US polar expedition could discover what 134 European-mounted voyages between 1496 and 1857 could not: the fabled Northwest Passage. The enterprise, the administration felt, would boost national unity, the whaling industry, and Far East trade. The expedition leader, Captain Charles Francis Hall, had few equals for cartographic skill, vigor, courage, Arctic survival skills, and willingness to learn from Inuit guides. But Hall, a landlubber with no experience commanding a vessel, did not have the self-assurance to face down challenges to his authority, especially from the German head of the expedition’s scientific corps. A foolhardy decision was made to abandon the Polaris, and 19 men were separated from the rest for nearly seven months on an overloaded whaler. When the expedition concluded nearly two years later, its crew described a fiasco featuring an alcoholic sailing master, internal dissension, and the more elemental terrors of frostbite, storms, whiteout conditions, starvation, and fear of cannibalism. Amazingly, the only casualty was Hall, who died early on under suspicious circumstances. Parry, a retired surgeon, expertly assesses the medical evidence supporting the possibility of murder, points to the most likely suspect aboard, and details the whitewash by a subsequent naval inquiry. Drawing on government records, survivor accounts, and his own knowledge of the Arctic, he delivers a harrowing narrative enlivened by prose that conveys the full force of nature bearing down on man in sentences such as the one describing Hall’s burial, “dwarfed by the immense presence of the sky, the unending whiteness, and the threatening rise of a shale bluff that towered before them like a crouching beast.”
An extraordinary real-life adventure of men battling the elements and themselves, told with ice-cold precision.