Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I am something of an Arctic and Antarctic literature obsessive. I have by no means read everything there is to read on the subject, but I’ve done quite a bit of armchair exploration. To my mind, there’s rarely anything so much fun as sitting with a hot cup of tea and reading about people whose gangrened feet (falling off from frostbite) are preventing them from catching the Arctic foxes they need to stave off starvation for another few days, while all the time they ignore the sensible precautions and tactics the Inuit have been using for centuries.
Too bad, then, that Jennifer Niven’s book, The Ice Master, the history of the doomed 1913 voyage of the Karluk, was such a dud. It could have been wonderful. Here was a perfect storm of disaster: dreadful, dishonest people, almost all of whom were totally unprepared for Arctic life, going on a trip with an old, broken-down ship unfit for ice-breaking, with a leader who had not bought any warm clothes for them and who had saved money by buying the cheapest and worst food available. The men on that ship fell prey to every imaginable problem short of cannibalism: their leader deserted them at the earliest opportunity; the scientific staff and the crew were at each other’s throats the entire trip; the food made them sick; they didn’t know anything about how to stay warm or dry, or how to handle dogs; they lost a quarter of their party almost immediately; there was a murder in camp and two men went mad.
But instead of making this a terrific piece of Arctic gossip, with a historical sense of what makes this story unique, Niven gives us too much of some things and too little of others, with no sense of pacing. She repeats the same information, chapter after chapter: one man’s foot is still giving him pain, and another is still snowblind. Okay, but what happened to the vamoosed leader, Stefansson? Did he get his comeuppance, or is he living it up in Nome? You could argue that the men of the Karluk don’t know, so we shouldn’t either, but half the pleasure of these books on extreme conditions is feeling superior, feeling that we could do better in the same situation. She must mention the men’s “mystery illness,” which caused swelling and weakness, about fifty times before finally naming it (nephritis, if you were wondering — I had it down as scurvy.) She quotes from their diaries a great deal, which would be good if it weren’t to say things like “Cold as hell again today.” Um, yes. You’re in the Arctic. In winter. Shall we move on to your thoughts about this?
I almost gave up on this book about two chapters in, when I encountered my third egregious editing mistake (he was poring over his book! Not pouring! Poring, people!) In the end, I’m glad I finished it. It was readable (just) and I’m glad I know what happened to the Karluk. I wouldn’t recommend it except to diehard Arctic fans, but if you are one, it could sneak onto your shelf for a spare moment’s skim.