Armchair Book Club: In the Kingdom of Ice

Heather Allen explores the icy journey of the USS Jeannette in the latest Armchair Book Club

A few weeks before my recent trip to the tropics, I visited my family doctor to make sure we had everything we might need in our first-aid kit. He added one thing to my list that was probably going to be the most useful.

Written out on a prescription sheet was a suggestion to read In the Kingdom of Ice: the grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette. I could just imagine myself sweating in the searing heat and stifling humidity, feeling just a tad bit cooler reading about this ill-fated journey to the Arctic.

I cracked open the book a few days before we were to set off – just to see if it was worth lugging in my carry on. Author, Hampton Sides, has a meandering start to his story but after 100 pages, the USS Jeannette is finally ready to set sail for the Bering Strait.

At the time, in the 1870s, many prominent scientists and geographers believed in a theory that a warm open polar sea existed at the top of the world. Explorers had tried to enter this sea from the east coast near Greenland, but had been turned back by ice.

DeLong, the captain of the USS Jeannette, believed that the way to get to the pole was from the west coast of North America. Relying on a theory that was debunked just weeks after the USS Jeannette set sail and out of communication with the world, this was a doomed voyage.

The story’s pacing picks up as the USS Jeannette steams from San Francisco Harbour. Even though I knew the voyage couldn’t be successful in finding an open polar sea, I still hoped for the best, or at least survival. The captain and crew had spent years preparing and fitting out the ship, and were so confident in their expedition. It’s an awful thing to look back from the future, and know how misguided they were.

Just weeks into their voyage, the USS Jeannette gets stuck in an ice floe – where they stay trapped for two years. It only gets more heartbreaking when they finally break free of the ice in the second, warmer summer. I won’t give too much away except to say that survivors of the USS Jeannette do make it back to land, but not without frostbite, starvation, and for some, a descent into madness.

This book became so engrossing that I sped through to the end before I left on my trip. Now that we have finally left our long winter behind, In the Kingdom of Ice will be an enticing read for anyone who loves a good adventure story. Thanks for the book suggestion!