Every once in awhile, a book comes along that takes my breath away, one
for which I put off walking the dog, grading my students' papers, even,
sometimes, eating. Ada Blackjack is such a book. Not only is it about a
heroic Inuit woman that we should all know, but Jennifer Niven's second
book is a gem of narrative and descriptive powers. The book is thrilling
and chilling, especially since it takes place primarily on Wrangel
Island, north of Siberia.
Blackjack (1893? - 1983) was a young Eskimo from Alaska, the only female
in a 1921 five-person expedition to Wrangel Island. With four
young men from the U.S. and Canada, she lived under unbelievably
difficult, freezing conditions for approximately two years. The team also
had a team of sled dogs, many of whom perished, and a resident cat.
A divorced mother who hired on as the team's seamstress and cook,
Blackjack went somewhat unwillingly. But, as she had a sick son whom she
couldn't afford to care for, and had been promised a large sum of
money to accompany the expedition, she felt compelled to go. Although a
shaman told her to go, she also warned Blackjack of "only death and
danger" on the expedition. That Blackjack found, in miles of ice;
sixty-one days of total darkness between November and January; towering
polar bears (of which she was particularly scared); and the ravaging
disease of scurvy from which one of her party, Lorne Knight, died a slow
and gruesome death. Ultimately, Ada Blackjack was the only human
survivor of the expedition.
Although when Ada first set foot on Wrangel Island she did not know how
to do the more "manly" chores such as making skin boats, chopping wood or
killing animals, she taught herself how to do all these things out of
necessity -- and became increasingly proud of herself. She was left on
her own for the last several months. Like Knight, she developed a touch
of scurvy but was able to remain relatively strong until a Russian ship
finally came to rescue her (and the only other survivor, the cat, Vic).
They took her back home to Nome, her tubercular son and a comparatively
warm and comfortable life.
The team of five lived in extremely close quarters, in tents and
icehouses. Early on, Ada fantasized about marrying one of the men, but
this quickly passed. The relationships between them were amicable if
sometimes strained. There was nothing for them to do except survive. The books they brought they read several times over. There was no
electricity, no entertainment, the food was often sparse and not
nutritious, and the possibility of getting anywhere on the island was extremely limited and
dangerous. The dogs, like the adventurers, became weak and tired. They
were all often undernourished, and the men had constant aches and pains
from dealing with the harsh climate.
The second half of the book centers on Blackjack's mundane and
poverty-stricken life back in "civilization" and the intricate
politics behind the two Wrangel expeditions. Three of the young men's
bodies from Ada's expedition were never found. While interesting in the context of the entire story, this second half
pales in comparison with the harrowing day-to-day lives of the five
adventurers on Wrangel Island.
After Ada returned to Alaska, she remarried twice, had one more son and
once traveled as far south as Los Angeles. But her life was never this
exciting again (not that she wanted it to be) and was never as
comfortable as one might wish for such a heroine. She died in relative obscurity.
"In September 1923, a diminutive twenty-five-year-old
Eskimo woman named Ada Blackjack emerged as the heroic survivor of an
ambitious polar expedition. In the annals of Arctic exploration, many
men have been hailed as heroes, but a hero like Ada was unheard of at
the time.After Ada's triumphant return to civilization, the
international press called her the female Robinson Crusoe."
Finally, one month after Blackjack died, the Alaska Legislature
recognized her as a "true and courageous hero, 'a small token of
remembrance for a woman whose bravery and heroic deeds have gone
unnoticed for so many years.'"
This is the first book about Blackjack although not the first book about
this expedition. Others exist, including two related volumes by explorer
and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the man who organized the
expedition and an earlier one to Wrangel - The Adventure of
Wrangel Island (1925) and The Friendly Arctic (1921). Although he
had spent years in the Arctic, Stefansson had never set foot on Wrangel
but wanted his crew to claim the uninhabitable island for the British, to expand his bloated reputation, and to re-prove his thesis of "the friendly Arctic."
Niven wrote this book based on diaries, letters, journals, and other
manuscripts written by the five adventurers. Many of these documents now
reside in college libraries. She was also able to study the personal
papers of Stefansson and to interview relatives of the brave young
explorers, including Ada's son, Billy Blackjack Johnson.
Although the author does not live in the Arctic, this is Niven's second
nonfiction book about the area. Obviously, like many of us, she is
fascinated with such an extreme and exotic climate. Her first book, The
Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk (published in 2001),
was called one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by
Entertainment Weekly and was included in the Barnes and Noble Discover
Great New Writers Program. That book became the subject of full-length
documentaries on Dateline NBC and on the Discovery Channel. Ada
Blackjack would also make an appropriate documentary or feature film
although it might be physically painful to watch (especially Knight's
wasting away from scurvy) -- best, perhaps, saved for the heat and sun of