Book Review: In the Kingdom of Ice

Synopsis from Goodreads: On July 8, 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and his team of thirty-two men set sail from San Francisco on the USS Jeanette. Heading deep into uncharted Arctic waters, they carried the aspirations of a young country burning to be the first nation to reach the North Pole.

Two years into the voyage, the Jeannette’s hull was breached by an impassable stretch of pack ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship amid torrents of rushing of water. Hours later, the ship had sunk below the surface, marooning the men a thousand miles north of Siberia, where they faced a terrifying march with minimal supplies across the endless ice pack.

Enduring everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and labyrinths of ice, the crew battled madness and starvation as they struggled desperately to survive. With thrilling twists and turns, In The Kingdom of Ice is a tale of heroism and determination in the most brutal place on Earth.

I picked this book up from our library pretty randomly. I needed a book for a reading challenge this month with ice on the cover, and I knew nothing about the USS Jeannette’s voyage but it sounded like an interesting read. I was pleasantly surprised in this engaging and entertaining book, and I wound up getting fully immersed in this tale of polar exploration in the late 19th century.

The book traces the cast of characters involved in the USS Jeannette’s voyage, from Captain George deLong to his crew members, as well as the eccentric playboy publisher, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who helped fund the voyage. (Bennett’s newspaper, the NY Herald, funded the famous “rescue” of Dr. Livingston from the wilds of Africa and Bennett was always on the lookout for a good adventure story that would lure readers to his paper.) It also introduced me to Albert Petermann, who was an renowned geographer, particularly of the Arctic and the supposed warm-water Arctic Sea, despite having never travelled extensively. Petermann’s studies and mapping of the area were resources the crew relied on heavily – unfortunately as it turned out, as there was neither a warm-water sea at the polar cap, nor were there islands shown in the correct places on his maps in what is now far eastern Siberia and northwestern Alaska.

The story is not just about polar exploration, it’s also about the amazing strength, courage and ingenuity of the men who went on this voyage. Faced with incredible odds, the crew managed to stay alive for months even after being marooned in the ice, and undertaking a risky open-water crossing in three small boats once the ice began to finally break. Not all of the crew survived this last effort, but luckily Captain deLong’s notes and journals of the expedition did, which allowed the author to craft this very detailed account of the crew’s actions and activities. We also find out details about the rescue ship sent out to find the Jeannette from John Muir (yes, THAT John Muir), who was tapped for that voyage after the first of his exploration trips into the mountains of California, when he wanted to explore more of the Pacific waters and coastline. His diaries from that unsuccessful trip (they found rumors but no real evidence of the Jeannette while she lay miles to the north, trapped in the ice, and so returned to San Francisco) are filled with notes about the indigenous peoples and the landscape the rescue ship travelled through.

This nonfiction book is a highly recommended read for those interested in scientific history, late 19th century history or maritime history. While filled with details, the story is so engaging and well-written, it reads more like a fiction book, despite being a story about real adventures, struggles and the ability of humans to endure.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: In the Kingdom of Ice

    1. It was a very interesting read and I had no clue, either! Also of interest, one of the crew, George Melville, was related to the writer, Herman Melville, and went on to a long and excellent career in steam engineering. I suspect his is a story I’d enjoy as well.

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