If you were ever to decide to go seek your fortune—or the fabled Northwest Passage or the North Pole—on the forbidding Arctic Ocean, you could do much worse than to have George Washington DeLong as your captain. He was meticulous, scholarly and attentive to the tiniest detail concerning the ship he commanded, the Jeanette. He planned, then double-checked his plans. He was careful about the safety of his crew. What’s more, he packed a mean larder, with one storeroom “filled to the ceiling with barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer.”
So writes veteran outdoor-adventure writer Hampton Sides in his new book In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette, recounting the arduous journey DeLong and crew embarked on in the summer of 1879, exploring the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean in a quest for the fabled ice-free passage while getting a better geographical command of the little-known region. For various reasons having to do both with human failings and the harsh environments into which the Jeanette traveled, the mission soon encountered difficulties, each challenge more wearying than the last.
To say more about that would be to throw spoilers into Sides’ lucid, well-paced narrative, but suffice it to note that not everyone returned to American shores.
During the time the expedition plied the Arctic, newspapers were reporting on DeLong’s progress and, when the news stopped coming in, agitating for the government to mount a rescue mission. John Muir, the famed conservationist, wrote about it, having himself traveled into the Arctic, while In the Lena Delta, a memoir by the Jeanette’s engineer, George Wallace Melville, sold briskly on its release in 1885.
Famed in its time, the story of the Jeanette is well-known today mostly to nautical historians and to few others. Indeed, Sides—an accomplished journalist and an alumnus of Outside magazine, the incubator of adventure writers such as Jon Krakauer and Michael Paterniti—says that he stumbled on it quite by accident while researching another story. “I was doing a piece for National Geographic,” he says, “and was in Oslo looking at Fritjof Nansen’s ship, Fram. In the museum where it’s mothballed, there was a little placard that mentioned the Jeanette, saying that Fram sailed along the same route. I’d never heard of it, although it was a huge story in its day. I tucked a note away about it. I soon came back to that note, and when I read more about the Jeanette, I realized that I had a story that I’d long been searching for—an American counterpart to Shackleton.
“I have a case of historical attention deficit disorder,” Sides adds. “I didn’t want to do World War II stories forever, didn’t want to do another Western,” referring to his books Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder, respectively. “I like moving around in different eras and different genres of narrative nonfiction. Those books are about expeditions of men across terribly difficult terrain, with a lot of marching involved. This one is the biggest march of all, across 1,000 miles of Arctic ice, sure—but the important thing is that they’re all stories, things worth following to the end, things that involve movement and landscapes that become characters.”
Add to all that “human character that becomes revealed through extreme situations,” as Sides puts it, and you’ve got the makings of a thumping good yarn. That’s certainly the case with the story of the Jeanette, and Sides delivers a vigorous tale of adventure that is unlikely to send any reader rushing to visit the Arctic in search of DeLong and Nansen—certainly not in winter, anyway, when the conditions they faced were unbelievably brutal.
Sides himself traveled throughout the far north to follow in DeLong’s footsteps, but in summer, when, he recalls, “I was nearly eaten up by mosquitoes.” The trip took him into northernmost Siberia, in the Lena River delta, and out into the Arctic Ocean to Wrangel Island—an undertaking that was fortunately well-timed, for he says, “it probably wouldn’t be possible now, considering the tension between the United States and Russia.” Indeed, some of the points in DeLong’s geography, such as the aptly named America Mountain, are restricted today, while a few others, as Sides ruefully discovered after traveling in bush planes, kayaks, snowmobiles and other contrivances, were simply too remote to get to.
DeLong’s experience, fraught with misadventure though it was, offers leadership lessons. He was both intrepid and careful, solicitous of his crew but sure of the rightness of his ways. His men, in return, were loyal to the expedition and their commander, even though they knew full well that they were sailing in harm’s way.
“If I were to fault DeLong, it was that he was such a disciplinarian that he grew inflexible as a leader,” Sides says. “It’s understandable: He was aware of the possibility of mutiny, given what had happened on prior expeditions. He wasn’t quite adaptable enough, and he probably should have shucked some of that by-the-book Navy discipline. Still, although he sometimes had disagreements with them, he listened to people. He especially listened to the Inuit, the people who lived in the places through which he was traveling, in a time when most European and American explorers were pretty contemptuous of native people. He had a good team that was hamstrung by some bad choices they all made along the way, but they made it to open water. It was just bad luck that things turned out as they did.”
George Washington DeLong, that unlucky man, is remembered today mostly in nautical circles, especially at the U.S. Naval Academy and elsewhere in the Navy, which named two ships after him. A statue in his honor stands in Philadelphia, while his grave and those of four of his crew members are still kept clean in a Bronx cemetery. A story that once riveted people around the world had fallen into obscurity—until now.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.