Most of us, once we are past the age of five or so, relinquish the fantasy of Santa and his workshops to the reality of a cold, watery and inhospitable North Pole. But in the late 19th century so little was known about the earth's northern-most regions that Santa may as well have set up shop there. Even the leading polar experts and top-notch cartographers believed in fantastical theories -- that the pole was a warm tropical sea, for example. An obsession to know the truth grasped many would-be explorers, among them Naval officer George Washington De Long and the prominent newspaperman James Gordon Bennett Jr., who would agree to back De Long's 1879 expedition to find the "Polar Grail."
With In the Kingdom of Ice
, award-winning editor of Outside magazine Hampton Sides brings to life the colorful characters that launched the expedition of the USS Jeannette into unknown polar regions. Sides begins his book with a lengthy description of the Gilded Age and its movers and shakers, particularly those who played a part in the fate of the USS Jeannette -- De Long and Bennett, of course, but also Augustus Petermann, whose idea of an open Polar Sea lent the expedition some unmerited optimism. It isn't until page 150 that the expedition is finally launched, and the reader feels the relief of second officer Danenhower when he "felt that our Arctic cruise had actually commenced."
It isn't long, however, before the Jeanette's northward path is blocked by ice and she is held fast in the floes. For nearly two years her crew waits, only to lose their ship to the crushing ice. The fantasy of the North Pole is abandoned for the reality of survival. The nearest land, over a thousand miles away, is desolate Siberia. De Long and his men must venture across the Arctic ice fields and stormy seas in hope of rescue. It's a harrowing tale of hardship, scrupulously researched and relayed with an empathy that reveals a heroic fight for survival.