Boy howdy, but is this a thumping good read. I'm a sucker for tales of terribly risky exploration, and if there was anything riskier than trying to attain the North Pole by ship in 1879, I'm not sure what it was.
This is a nonfiction recounting of the USS Jeannette, which I'm deliberately not linking to additional information. Before I started reading, I made a conscious decision not to look it up and learn more about it ahead of time, and I'm so glad I didn't. The back cover of the book notes that the ship becomes trapped in ice and eventually sinks, leaving its crew to try to get across a thousand miles of ice to Siberia. That's all you need to know. Not knowing if anyone survives, or who, or how, made this a gripping read (and don't worry, I'm not going to spoil anything).
Author Hampton Sides has done extensive research and uncovered treasure troves of diaries and letters. The captain of the Jeannette, George Washington De Long, was a dedicated diarist who insisted, even when the ship sank, on carrying his journals and notes on the arduous trek. We can be thankful for that now, because there is an incredible amount of detail about the journey we never would have had otherwise, and because De Long was also a gifted writer. Of course, not everyone agreed with his insistence on taking these items, but De Long insisted.
It wasn't just De Long who kept meticulous records. De Long's wife, Emma, wrote incessant letters to him that are heartfelt and heartrending. This becomes almost as much a portrait of her in her fearful, years-long wait to learn what happened as it is about the ship and its crew.
Sides is especially strong in developing the characters of the major players. One of the primary financiers was a newspaperman and wealthy playboy who had some eye-raising behaviors (he liked to ride horseback in the nude in New York City), and the crew of the ship had pretty much every kind of personality, from delightful to truculent--all documented in great detail in the ship's logs, and in logs and letters kept by other crew.
This was a story I hadn't heard before, and Sides tells it well. Now that I've read this, I see there's a published collection of De Long's writings. Hmmm...