Bee Book Club: ‘In the Kingdom of Ice’ tells a true story

Hampton Sides, just in from Nashville, took the phone call in his hotel room in Washington, D.C., to talk about his new book, a true story that reads like a thriller. The next day his book tour would take him to St. Louis, Chicago and seven other cities. He lands in Sacramento on Thursday for his date with the Bee Book Club.

“The travel does get tiring, but I’m very lucky to even be doing it,” he said.

The New York Times best-selling author-journalist-explorer has just published his fourth “historical narrative nonfiction” title, “In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette,” the fruit of four years of research and writing. It’s the Bee Book Club’s choice for September (Doubleday, $29, 451 pages).

“Our past is a rich trove of stories, but you have to excavate to find them,” said Sides. “People like me are constantly looking for historical stories that were hugely consequential in their day, but have been forgotten. It’s nice to resurrect something from the past and bring it to a new audience, instead of writing yet another book on Lincoln.”

Sides holds a history degree from Yale University, yet sees himself not as a “conventional academic historian” but as “a journalist who writes about history,” he said. “I’m interested in telling stories, not in analyzing esoteric points. I learned how to tell a narrative story as a magazine journalist for 25 years.”

“Kingdom” recounts the long-lost story of the USS Jeannette, which left San Francisco in July 1879 carrying a crew of 33 bound for the North Pole, one of the planet’s last uncharted regions.

With a sense of Manifest Destiny still lingering in the national consciousness, America had turned its collective imagination from settling the Wild West to exploring the North Pole. It was captivated by the fantastic stories surrounding the “frozen zone,” as it was called.

“There were myths and tales from mariners and whalers going back to the Greeks and Vikings, (including one of) a lost civilization living on a lost continent,” Sides said. “In some kind of profound way, we wanted to believe there was a warm, cozy place up there, an oasis in an ice-free ‘open polar sea.’ It must have sounded so cool.”

Celebrated naval officer Lt. Cmdr. George Washington De Long had approached multimillionaire James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald, about funding such a voyage. It was Bennett, after all, who had sent journalist-explorer Henry Stanley to Africa in search of missionary-explorer David Livingstone. The publisher had saturated the Herald with the resulting stories, and newspaper sales soared.

“Bennett was looking for a big encore to that, so he agreed,” Sides said.

After five years of preparation, the government-endorsed U.S. Arctic Expedition was launched. The Jeannette was a former Royal Navy gunvessel, a three-masted schooner with a coal-fired steam engine and a screw propeller. It had been thoroughly outfitted and provisioned, and massively reinforced to withstand anything the Arctic might throw its way. She carried a crew of civilians and naval officers under DeLong, who was assisted by Chief Engineer George Melville. Also aboard was a correspondent for the Herald.

Thousands of well-wishers turned out to cheer the Jeannette on her way. Cannon roared in salute as the schooner passed through the Golden Gate, bound for the Bering Strait. It was a glorious day, and no one had a thought that the voyage would end in the worst ways possible.

The root problem turned out to be the misguided mapping and navigation data on which the voyage was based.

“The voyage was a Greek tragedy (in which) the villain was circumstance – an accumulation of near misses and missteps that De Long and Melville couldn’t foresee,” said Sides.

“In some ways, though, a tragic sort of villain was (German cartographer) Augustus Petermann, who was hopelessly wrong on just about every key point the expedition was based on,” Sides said. “The British scoffed at his ideas of an open polar sea, a mysterious continent and a warm current that softened the ice and created a gateway into the North Pole, but the guy who had the maps had the power. They were beautiful theories that had to be tested. Unfortunately with Arctic exploration, people have to die to prove or disprove the theories of the day.”

At one point before the voyage, Petermann had remarked that reaching the North Pole would be “a very easy, trival thing.” Later, as the Jeannette sailed into unknown territory and spent two years locked in the ice pack, De Long and Melville would curse his name.

After drifting at the mercy of currents that constantly pushed the ice pack, the Jeannette was finally crushed by the pressure from the ice and sank. The men were marooned on the shifting ice, 1,000 miles north of the Arctic coast of central Siberia. With scant provisions (including a few dogsleds), they set out to save themselves. They would encounter ice storms, snow blindness, polar bears and near madness.

In the aftermath, the survivors were treated as heroes, Sides said, and there were many homages to them and their voyage – books, poems, paintings, monuments, honors from the world’s heads of states.

“Because of climate change and our changing relationship with Russia, there’s a special interest in the Arctic right now,” he said. “The Jeannette is an important story in the annals of exploration, and it changed our notion of the Arctic in a lot of ways.

“That’s the exploration side, but it’s also an amazing tale of human striving and survival. Once the crew got out on the ice, there were many opportunities for mutiny and cannibalism, but that didn’t happen. De Long held it together for the 91 days it took them to hit open water and set sail (in three boats they’d dragged with them). But bad luck had a role.”

Sides first learned of the Jeannette saga while visiting a museum in Oslo, Norway, for a National Geographic magazine story. Housed there is the ship Fram, on which Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had tried to duplicate the Jeannette’s voyage in the 1890s.

“There were references to the Jeannette everywhere in the museum, as if everyone knows what it was,” said Sides. “I’d never heard of it, so I filed it away and decided to dig a little deeper. It turned out there was so much to work with – the primary material was there, the characters were great, it hadn’t been written about since the 1880s. That’s when I knew I had something. But I kept pinching myself, thinking there must be some catch, like a lot of other people were going to write the same book at the same time.”

As part of his research, Sides boarded a Russian ice breaker to follow a small part of De Long’s route (most of it is now in restricted areas). “Before I went, I had the notion the Arctic was a big monolith of ice,” he said. “But it’s constantly moving and churning. There are pressure ridges, a flow, channels and lagoons, and all sorts of natural forces working on it constantly. It makes a horrible racket – shrieking and shuddering and moving. It’s a very frightening place.”

Also for research, Sides accessed De Long’s and Melville’s original log books, charts and diaries at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and at the Naval Academy Museum in Maryland.

“They could have ditched their books at any time during their trek over the ice,” Sides said. “The books were heavy and cumbersome and the men were fighting a battle of calories, but they held on to them like relics. De Long knew if they were lost, there would be no record of the expedition.

“When I handled the documents, there was a kind of hallowed quality to them – just think of where they had been – but at the same time a lot of them were just thousands of pages of measurements, barometric pressure readings, temperatures, water salinity and so on.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working with the National Archives to digitize all the De Long documents, Sides said. “Scientists are religiously studying them because they have no way of knowing what the ice looked like more than a century ago,” he said. “What’s emerging is pretty scary. The thickness and extensiveness of the ice have changed dramatically – there’s less of it. So all of De Long’s efforts are starting to pay off in terms of science. Ironically, the climate-change folks say there could well be an open polar sea in the summertime within 50 years.”

At some point during the “Kingdom” project, did Sides imagine what he would have done if he had been on the voyage?

“I was constantly thinking about it,” he said. “One of the reasons these ‘ordeal narratives’ are so popular is because we all wonder, ‘How would I have survived that?’

“I don’t know that I would have made it through the two years they were locked in the ice, (given) the claustrophobia and monochromatic landscape, where every day and every vista were the same,” he said. “Maybe it would have driven me absolutely crazy, but everyone has a reserve of strength they don’t know about until they have to call upon it.”

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