As thousands of spectators cheered, the USS Jeannette left San Francisco Bay in the summer of 1879 and headed northward toward the unknown. Its ambitious destination: the North Pole, a place that had captured the imagination of 19th century scientists, explorers and the public but that remained shrouded in mystery and wild scientific speculation.
If the expedition succeeded, the American ship and its crew would be the first to discover what really existed at the top of the world.
It would be an understatement to say things did not go smoothly. Hampton Sides tells the thrilling and harrowing true story in his bestseller, “In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.” It’s now out in paperback.
The dream of being the first to reach the North Pole was of enormous interest to America. The country was yearning to establish itself on the international stage after a devastating Civil War, Sides writes. With the financial backing of a flamboyant and eccentric newspaper publisher named James Gordon Bennett Jr., the able leadership of Naval officer George Washington De Long, a highly competent 32-man crew and the best in equipment, navigational tools and amenities, the USS Jeannette set sail amid high hopes and expectations.
Unfortunately, the Jeannette’s captain and crew were also dangerously misinformed about conditions that likely existed in the Arctic. Scientists and geographers at the time widely believed that there was an “Open Polar Sea” at the North Pole, a warm shallow basin where marine life likely flourished. But instead of finding a passage to the North Pole, the Jeannette became trapped in a mass of shifting, heaving ice that carried it in a northwesterly direction. After 21 months, the ship’s hull was finally crushed and it sank, leaving the crew stranded on the ice nearly a thousand miles from the nearest landmass — the Arctic coast of central Siberia.
Sides relies on journals, personal letters, historic records and other sources to tell this riveting story. Over the course of the book, we come to know the character of the men who made this “grand and terrible voyage.” They showed nothing less than superhuman perseverance through unthinkable conditions, injury and illness.
Back home, loved ones also endured extreme distress as years passed without any word of the Jeannette or its fate. Sides includes excerpts from Emma De Long’s moving and eloquent letters to her husband throughout the book. “I would like to be with you, to see you, to take care of you,” she writes in a missive that offers insight into her growing anguish. “I am trying to wait patiently for news from my own suffering husband, and it is needless to say how very, very anxious I am.”
In both interviews and talks, such as one he delivered in July at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Sides wisely declines to divulge the details of what ultimately happened to the crew of the Jeannette, other than to say some of them survived. That’s fitting, since one of the great pleasures of reading “In the Kingdom of Ice” is the unexpected twists and turns that continue through the final pages.
Readers might feel a palpable chill as they join De Long and crew on the ice, but they’ll want to stay with them for the entire journey.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Sides, are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to Reader’s Corner anytime, download our free player from the iTunes App Store. Search for “Reader’s Corner.”