Whether the public really needs yet another addition to the bulging canon of cold-air disaster books, there seems little doubt that the public wants more bulges in that canon. One has only to observe the snowy array of books that publishers have scurried to issue hot (or rather cold) on the bestselling heels of Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm," to see the evidence of a new industry maxim: Frostbite sells.
It would be wickedly unjust, however, to charge Leonard F. Guttridge with opportunism. This sturdy historian presaged the current ice vogue with "Icebound: The Jeanette Expedition's Quest for the North Pole" way back in 1986, when arctic-exploration tomes typically garnered their authors three-figure advances from the Naval Institute Press and a few lecture invitations from local cartography clubs. In his acknowledgments to his newest book, Guttridge confesses that after that effort he was determined to abandon the Arctic.
But then came a chance mention at a New York Explorers Club function, documents salvaged from a landfill outside a Washington, D.C., prison and scraps of a notebook secreted for decades with two spent rifle cartridges in a silver vegetable dish. These piloted Guttridge into seven years of research on a ruinous 1881-1883 expedition to the remote arctic terrain of Lady Franklin Bay. The result, "Ghosts of Cape Sabine," is a frosty delight: There's adventure aplenty here, not to mention execution, mutiny, starvation, suicide and cannibalism. Oh -- and frostbite.
The Lady Franklin Bay expedition, which marked the United States' first foray into government-funded exploration, sailed north in the summer of 1881 from St. John's, Newfoundland under the command of Lt. Adolphus Greely, with 19 soldiers under the U.S. Army Signal Corps banner, three civilians, two Greenlanders and a petulant doctor/naturalist. "Except for those latter three," Guttridge writes,
not one could sail a boat, and few knew how to row. Only Sergeant Cross, already identified by Greely as a drunk, knew how to operate the party's steam launch, having worked in the Washington Navy Yard. For the most part, knowledge of dog-sledge driving and ice-field navigation, not to mention the terrible psychological strains imposed by the Arctic's long winter nights, had been derived only from books ... It was not a recipe for success.
But Greely's expedition did succeed, if only in the schoolyardish arena of exploratory conquest: Three of its members planted the American flag four miles north of where the British explorer Albert Markham had several years earlier planted the Union Jack, thus breaking England's 300-year reign in polar record-breaking. It was the party's only tangible success, however, and its cost in lives was enormous -- a rescue party, arriving two years later, brought out only seven men alive.
Those seven returned home less as heroes than emblems of a murderous national folly. As the Chicago Tribune put it: "Arctic exploration has involved an immense waste of money and life. It is time that it stopped." It didn't, of course -- precisely 20 years after Greely's survivors came home, a savvy self-promoter named Robert E. Peary passed by their former northernmost camp on his way to the North Pole. But Peary, backed by well-heeled sponsors, went forth on his own; the U.S. government had washed its hands of arctic exploration.
Guttridge's good fortune was immense -- not only did nearly every member of the party keep a journal, their journals are remarkably frank and even more remarkably dramatic: "I can do nothing more than shoot him." "This seems to me like a nightmare in one of Edgar Allen Poe's stories." "Madness." "If the channel doesn't freeze, and no help from the other side, and no game, we are all gone." "We can live about twenty more days -- then what?" "Only six more days are left us. Starvation looks us in the face. Seven of our party are dead already and the rest of us are resigned to follow."
What drives the current vogue for icebound adventure isn't entirely clear, though a glance backward reveals a similar fixation just prior to the last century's turn, when Britons and Americans, boggled by the technological leaps of the Industrial Age and the ideological upheavals that Darwin had wrought, turned in droves to the accounts of polar explorers and to Jack London's theater of extremes. Nothing better symbolized the nothingness at the heart of Darwinian theory, and of a world made of machines, than the bleached silence of the Arctic. Herman Melville, who knew a thing or two about whiteness, pondered the theme in "Moby-Dick": "Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way?"
Or perhaps, less pessimistically, what lies at the core of our recurring arctic yen is a smidgen of Luddite sympathies: The Arctic, even today, represents our failure to fully conquer nature. The whiteness always wins; human beings wither and die or, reduced to their animal essence, survive by devouring their companions. Then again, it may be even simpler. As Francis Spufford wrote in "I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination," his masterly 1997 study of the Victorians' polar fetish, "The deep interest of those who are living and must die is their permanent source for the effectiveness of myth."
For whatever reasons, then, Guttridge's account -- vivid in its whiteness and raw in its themes -- is a thriller. If the cold-air disaster canon is bulging, so be it; this newest bulge deserves an honored place.