IN THE LAND OF WHITE DEATH by Valerian Albanov
Kirkus Star


An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic
Email this review


The first translation of a sparse, harrowing account (originally published in 1917 in Russia) of his trek across the frozen icecaps of the Arctic.

In October 1912, the fishing vessel Santa Anna became icebound in the Kara Sea—hundreds of miles from even the northernmost islands of Siberia. For nearly two years the crew lived in a couple of cabins aft of the ship with a dwindling supply of food. When they were down to a few months’ rations, Albanov, the navigator, quarreled with the captain, who wanted to wait for a rescue team. In April 1914, Albanov and 13 others set out on their own in homemade sledges and kayaks. The first four chapters of Albanov’s diary, begun at the outset of the trek when he was not starving and battling for his life, are written in a highly descriptive, ebullient style that captures the stark, lunar landscape of a land of glaciers, blizzards, and the frozen sea. Much like Melville’s early travel narratives, his observations of the natural world and the adversity of his surroundings are infused with a poetic realism. But as the hazards and hardships of the journey mount (with his fellow crew members succumbing to starvation, exposure, and walrus and polar-bear attacks), the diary moves away from literary flourish to a laconic, austere narrative that impresses upon the reader one idea and one idea alone: Albanov’s will to live. From June 28th on, the entries simply catalogue the importance of navigating the ice floes, killing seals for food, and locating the nearest occupied outpost (which they finally do on August 19, 1914). These stoic entries are even more powerful than the descriptive ones, however, for they are almost hypnotic in their effect—bringing one into Albanov’s contrary mindset of fear for his life and the gritty will to survive.

A gripping testament to the quiet, obdurate inspiration of a Russian navigator who refused to die.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-64100-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Modern Library
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2000