The tragic fate of the USS Jeannette in the Polar North in 1879 is at the heart of this riveting account, so beautifully detailed and personalized that the dryness of historical fact takes on a sense of moment. Characters come vividly to life in an endeavor of heroic proportions, men engaged in a mission that binds them together in duty and in death. The seed of the expedition is planted in 1873 with news of the Polaris, trapped in the ice while on a polar expedition along the west coast of Greenland.
When the vessel the Juniata is sent in search of the Polaris, the second-in-command, twenty-eight-year-old George Washington De Long, makes the acquaintance of New York Herald reporter Martin Maher. Later, that meeting facilitates De Long’s introduction the colorful playboy/owner of the popular Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. While De Long is unexpectedly struck with Arctic fever from his first encounter with the Polaris and its failed voyage, Bennett has long filled his inherited newspaper empire with the kind of stories that fire the public’s imagination, tales of bravery and adventure. An intense nationalism drives the world’s obsession with the North Pole and the propagation of the Open Sea theory, an unsubstantiated myth of calmer waters and exotic life forms in a place not yet scientifically investigated by man.
Bennett elects to finance a Polar expedition captained by George De Long. The enormous undertaking begins with the gathering of necessities and an able crew, the genesis of a critical affiliation between the expedition and Washington, DC, the official seal of the United States government bequeathed on the enterprise. After an exhaustive search, a ship is purchased—the Pandora, rechristened as the Jeannette for Bennett’s sister. Anxious to begin his northern quest, De Long leaves no detail unattended, attempting to provide for every possible requirement, from food and supplies to specific crew members and an intimate knowledge of the most up-to-date navigational charts available at the time. It is an enormous undertaking, one that will separate De Long from his beloved wife and young daughter. Bennett promises to pay every expense. That allows the magnate a great deal of control over the journey, a fact that costs De Long precious days in outrunning the frigid winter months that close in on the endeavor.
Sides’s recreation of the voyage and its perils, the pitting of man against nature, is fascinating, based on written records and the personal reports of survivors as the USS Jeannette is trapped for months by the ice, only to break free and later succumb to the smothering expanse of white that holds the men and their ship as pawns in its relentless grip. Even when the vessel is lost, the men continue, setting out on foot with three small boats and supplies, hopeful that they might at some point come into contact with human civilization. The ordeal is harrowing, strong personalities chafing against De Long’s authority, so critical to their survival, and the three boats eventually become separated. De Long, Second-in-Command Lieutenant Chipp and George Melville are each left with a contingent of crew members to lead to safety. Traveling across the icy, unpredictable terrain on foot, the men face the most extreme conditions in their efforts to survive the elements. De Long lugs along his precious ship’s journals filled with priceless documentation that will put to rest the dreams of the Open Polar Sea and other long-believed but false notions.
The narrative is compelling, from De Long’s growing love affair with the North Pole to his devotion to his wife, Emma; from the grand ambitions and egocentricity of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to the assemblage of crew individual members, some of whom fall short when tested, others, like George Melville, beyond heroic. In all, this is a shattering account of a lost Polar expedition at a time when America is hungry for a new frontier to tame, blinded by the mythical tales of so-called experts, drawing De Long into a fated journey that will claim his life but mark his name in the pages of history.