In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers) bolsters our ongoing fascination with heroic tales of voyages to the polar caps. To the list that includes Peary and Shackleton, we can now add U.S. Navy Commander George W. DeLong, of the USS Jeannette. The "Polar Problem," as it was called then, loomed large and mysterious. Scientists conjectured that the Arctic Ocean was warm, the open water tepid and easy to sail. Arctic expert August Petermann believed the best route to the Arctic was the Bering Sea; DeLong, bankrolled by newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett Jr., agreed. On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette--outfitted with a steam engine, desalination apparatus, three years of provisions and cases of Budweiser--set sail from San Francisco with a crew of 30. An 11-gun salute roared from the ramparts of the Presidio; DeLong's journal, later recovered, provided Sides with many of the details that give his book depth and credibility.

In August, the ship stopped in Alaska to take on more coal, then sailed on. In early September, an American whaling fleet spotted the Jeannette near Herald Island, trailing a plume of black smoke. It was the last sighting of the ship. That month, ice 15 feet thick and massive floes battered the Jeannette, eventually trapping it. On November 13, the sun set and the crew was "plunged in nearly complete darkness." The year turned. In January 1881, the ship began to leak. The grand part was over; the terrible part had begun.

Though the outcome is known, adventure-loving readers will find much to enjoy in Sides's suspenseful telling of this tragic, heroic tale. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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