So I finally got down to reading Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice, after seeing it on so many ‘Best Non-Fiction of 2014’ lists and hearing rave reviews from bloggers I follow. To summarise — it’s worth the hype.
As the subtitle suggests, In the Kingdom of Ice recounts a voyage grander and more terrible than most fictional adventures. The story in itself, even in the hands of a less able narrator/researcher, would have been sufficiently thrilling; Sides’ writing style does it justice, and more — the reader is treated to the merciless beauty of the Arctic, and hearing a story framed through multiple narratives, woven through multiple threads.
Much of their journey seemed like a dream, a long whiteout of undifferentiated days punctuated by a few moments of haunting clarity: A snowy owl staring at them. A pile of decrepit sleds they smashed up for firewood. The corpse of a native buried in a box on a hill. A crow, circling and circling and circling.
What makes this account especially memorable, though, is his interest in the flesh-and-blood people on and behind the voyage: What is the allure of the North Pole? Why would men take the ultimate risk for a vision, leaving behind young wives who write out their letters thrice in hopes that somewhere, somehow, one copy would reach their husbands? Why do we put all our weight on hubristic scientific theory, and what do we do when it crumbles beneath our feet (ship)? Does decorating the vessel for the 4th of July matter when you’ve been stuck in the same place, locked in by ice, for more than a year? And what do you tell your men —who have been lugging sleds and supplies, trudging southwards in hunger and wetness and coldness— when you realise the ice all of you are on is shifting in the opposite direction, much faster than you can move?
The privilege isn’t given to everyone… You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it. — Henry James, 1881
History-memoir-biography is not my preferred genre, and I don’t know a starboard from a keel. But this was definitely worth the $1.55 NLB reservation fee, some sleep, and the catching-up-on-work I have ahead of me (:
Note: A personally interesting, though likely unintentional, theme was the role that faith played in the entire ordeal. In one instance, when the crew stumble across an island teeming with wildlife after many despair-filled days, the captain writes that he is thankful for capital-P Providence. In Sides’ commentary, revealingly, it is ‘a stroke of pure luck’.