Review: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette by Hampton Sides

Review by Donna Talarico

cover of in the kingdom of ice glacier waterThis book is haunting. And literally chilling.

The cover of In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette (Anchor, Aug. 2014) is gorgeous. Sheer, glassy ice under a twinkling sky. Raised foil letters accented with a historic-looking font. It’s classy and detailed, and the pictured landscape offers a bit of mystery. If you are judging a book by its cover, then you know, immediately, this is a book you need to buy (or borrow). Especially if you’re drawn to history, to life at sea, to discovery, to adventure. And love.

If the cover design is not enough, another element that completely sold me on this story was the front-cover blurb from The Wall Street Journal: “A marvelous nonfiction thriller.” I hadn’t heard a book described that way before. A nonfiction thriller. Love it. I’m reviewing this book much later than I had anticipated; it was released last year. It’s been on my stack—and, man, should I have moved it up to the top. I’d been sitting on a masterpiece for far too long.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first third of the book was setting up the adventure. I had assumed that there would be a little backstory, and that we’d be on the ship within a few chapters. Not with Hampton Sides. In the Kingdom of Ice was painstakingly researched, and I enjoyed every rich detail of history. [The notes and bibliography comprise 34 pages.] This voyage took years of planning: finding funding, searching for a ship, creating a crew—it all had to be done before the Jeannette could head north. Way north.

Early on we meet Charles DeLong. A young Navy lieutenant whose first successful polar assignment—a search and rescue mission—would leave him wanting more. Sides writes: “The scenery grew more impressive: ice-gouged fjords, towering bergs calved fresh from the glaciers, the crisp sound of cold surf lapping against the pack, ringed seals peeking through the ice, bowhead whales spouting in the deep ray channel. This was the purest wilderness DeLong had ever seen, and he began to fall in love with it.”

By way of a tale of a famous newspaper stunt, we meet an eccentric publishing tycoon, James Gordon Bennett Jr. We learn that this man heralds the kinds of stories the public wants to hear, but not without critics. Still, the publisher believes in his work, no matter how he goes about chasing (or creating) a story. Writes Sides: “Bennett had the conviction that a first-rate reporter, if turned loose on the world to pursue some human mystery or solve some geographical puzzle, would invariably sell papers and extend knowledge at the same time.” We learn that this is the kind of man—one with deep pockets and a deeper curiosity and sense of adventure—that will become interested in an Arctic exploration. Bennett also adds a bit of comic relief to the early part of this book; I was captivated by this man and want to learn more about him.

We go to Germany to meet August Petermann, a professor and map maker who also is an Arctic junkie. His quarters come alive when Sides writes: “Petermann greeted Bennett in the drafting room of his institute, where teams of apprentice cartographers sat hunkered over their tilted tables, working with compasses and horsehair paintbrushes and hachuring pens.” You want to buy a real map after reading these passages. I know I longed to head back to his amazing map store I stumbled upon in Maine, The Delorme Store.

We go the 1876 Centennial Celebration (think World’s Fair) in Philadelphia and observe a young Edison and Bell whose inventions have yet to make an impact on the world, but DeLong is intrigued. Eastman and Westinghouse are there, too. This slice of history gives you a sense of time and place, and the excitement in the States. There’s innovation and energy—and you want to be part of it.

And we meet the crew. When Captain DeLong sets off to find his officers and seamen, Sides writes: “A few of the applicants had been to the Arctic before and had fallen in love with its strange light, its howling solitudes, its haunting and beautiful otherness.” With a description like that, who wouldn’t want to explore more?

Sides brings this cast of characters—real people, actually—to life. For instance, you can actually see the shipping magnates when he writes things like: “The men at Grinnell’s house nursed their brandies and stroked their beards in thought.” The color continues.

Sides’ writing is beautiful. He’s giving a historical account filled with facts, but he’s doing so in a compelling, lively, engaging way. On page 30, this line made me fall in love with his style: “Bennett warmed to the idea of an ambitious Arctic adventure.” The juxtaposition of temperature and the alliteration makes what seems like a simple sentence just shine.

This set-up—the time and care spent on the years leading up to the voyage—is so important. This attention to every word continues as the real adventure begins.

Life at sea, on the Jeanette, is often filled with singing, rum and ale drinking, and the occasional shipmate-run revue—complete with a pun-loving meteorologist. These moments balance out the rough times—the events that lead to the meat of this incredible account. The writing is always elegant, and no word wasted as we weather storms, trudge across ice, make hard decisions, undergo medical examinations, revel in camaraderie, and, even, just go about daily life. The story is suspenseful. You will likely finish this 400+ page book faster than other books with this page count because it will be harder to put down. This book makes me want to go read Sides’ other titles. Soon.

The narrative is peppered with bits of DeLong’s ship log and journals of other crew members. You learn to love these men—the surgeon, the executive officer, the quartermaster, the engineer (who is named Melville, and, yes, there’s a relation); and, the ones that get under your skin, well, you admire them too. Another device: The chapters after Jeanette sets sail are preceded with a letter from the Captain’s dear Emma. I could picture her words, neatly written in ink, in the cursive that no one writes anymore. I could almost feel her longing to see her husband, who was off on a multi-year exploration. When the ship’s company gulped down warm coffee and got whipped with cold salty water, I could see, smell and taste it.

That I could concoct these images and experience these senses and emotions is a testament to Sides’ craft. I was there. In the 1870s. Back home yearning with Emma. Aboard the Jeannette persevering with the men. In France hiding out with Bennett.

If you are not familiar with the story of the USS Jeanette, and you plan to read this book, do yourself the favor of not researching this tale any further before you get to the bookstore or while you wait for your book to arrive in the mail. I had no knowledge of this story, and that made every turn of the page that more exciting.

Bonuses of this In the Kingdom of Ice include changing maps of the Arctic region and, of course, photos of the brave men and other important characters. We learn about other voyages and meet other figures who will become important in American history, such as John Muir, pivotal in the environmental movement. Another bonus of this book? Enhanced vocabulary. I circled many words to look up later (something I often do when I read something historical or out-of-my-technical-reach.) Words like mallemaroking and perfidiousness. Other words were noted for use in Scrabble and Boggle. (As an aside, when I’d play Boggle, I’d be curious about strange combinations of letters that were actually words, and when I looked them up, they were many terms defined as being part of a ship. It’s true.)

DeLong writes in his journal, early on in the voyage—shortly after they get stuck in ice: “Wintering in the pack may be a chilling thing to read about alongside a warm fire, but the actual thing is sufficient enough to make any man prematurely old.”

Wintering in the pack—and every last bit of the Jeanette adventure—was indeed a chilling thing to read about (for me it was sans fire, but it was in a scorching summer). Sides gives a masterful retelling of this harrowing story of endurance and survival, aided, of course, by DeLong’s own words, written from his quarters on the ship—and upon sheets of ice. Words directly from the Arctic that I still can’t shake from my mind.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

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  • Cathy Bell

    I heart this book so much.