Voyage of the USS Jeanette


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Even though Hollywood insists on foisting the next slam bang action film on the public every week, sometimes real life is even more thrilling than anything a screenwriter could come up with. Hampton Sides provides a detailed and harrowing account of the USS Jeanette, a fateful 19th-century voyage to the North Pole. It might seem that a story taking place mostly in a colder clime might bring about a case of frozen apathy. However, Sides’ account of the event, meticulously researched from primary sources, is a page turner greater than any piece of fiction.

In 1879 the world was much more bare than it is now. The North Pole was a region virtually unknown, and discovering the unknown, not unlike today, brought with it massive reward —namely fame. But as with most things, fame comes with a price, and that price in this story is ridiculously high.

The story of the USS Jeanette begins with the owner of The New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, and his funding of an expedition to the North Pole, as a way of keeping his readers interested. Incidentally, Bennett had previously financed Sir Henry M. Stanley’s expedition to find Dr. David Livingstone. Fame begets hubris, and that is certainly the case here.

The captain of the expedition, George Washington De Long, made the trip as planned, only to have his ship trapped in ice. But that is only the start of the story. Things get much more harrowing. Ironically, as good as the story is, it is precisely the kind of tale almost definitely headed for the silver screen at some point. Better to enjoy it with masterful and compelling prose before all the life is sucked out of it.

The only possible drawback to the story is the historical detail. It may divert the compelling narrative every once in a while, but it simultaneously lends the exciting story the authenticity it needs. This is one for the top shelf.

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