In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides, Doubleday, 480 pages
In 1873 George Washington De Long — an aspiring American hero who as a teenager had, tellingly, changed his middle name from Francis — developed a severe case of “pagophilia”: a penchant for living on ice. The condition would influence every subsequent decision of his life. That summer, the 28-year-old Navy lieutenant was part of a rescue mission in the Arctic, taxed with finding survivors of the probably mutiny-stricken ship Polaris. Rather than dissuade him from venturing away from a happy home and a loving wife, the “lonely grandeur” of the “purest wilderness De Long had ever seen” had made him a pagophile.
Not just that, but De Long was now a determined explorer with a new mission: to reach, at last, the North Pole. With honor and renown, he would solve the millennia-old mystery of what the uppermost place on earth was like. De Long’s pursuit propels the narrative of Santa Fe-based author Hampton Sides’ latest epic, In the Kingdom of Ice, which proves once again that Sides can tell a story like few others. Sides parallels his protagonist in his superlative briskness and agility; he steers his tale with the innate intuition of a masterful navigator.
In the Kingdom of Ice is in some senses an indirect sequel to Sides’ exemplary 2006 work, Blood and Thunder, about Kit Carson and America’s expansion westward. Where was there to go after Manifest Destiny had driven the U.S. to the Pacific? The spirit of conquest had hardly dwindled, and in the post-Civil War era, young men were particularly keen to demonstrate their bravery — if not on the battlefield then somewhere comparably glorious. The fervor of scientific theories, experiments, and inventions in the mid-19th century added to the sensation of agitated curiosity.
As De Long saw it, America’s next discovery would be geographic and scientific — and of course it would confirm that the nation, though just 100 years old, was already an indomitable world leader.
De Long needed a patron, someone who would be willing to spend many thousands of dollars on what could well turn out to be a fool’s errand or, worse, a fatal disaster. New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett Jr. was a “cool man sitting on a warm pot of money,” some of which he was glad to offer to the explorer. Bennett was not immune to the “Arctic bug” or to the news stories it would precipitate. Bennett is the kind of real-life figure with so many idiosyncrasies that he seems fictional. He preferred generating news to merely reporting it (for instance, he orchestrated Henry Stanley’s journey into Africa to find David Livingstone), and he had few qualms about fabricating the news when it suited him, as when he published an item about animals escaping from the zoo in Central Park and massacring passersby. Bennett also had a tendency to commit acts to which New York high society did not respond favorably, such as racing carriages around New York while naked and once, in the presence of ladies, mistaking a grand piano for a toilet.
On July 8, 1879, after grand expenditures by Bennett, extensive preparations, and the formation of a team of 33 adventurers — including a Herald reporter — the USS Jeannette launched from San Francisco, heading north and, if all went according to plan, into the history books.
All did not go according to plan. (If it had, Kingdom would have been a very short book.) Widely held beliefs about the Arctic — such as the open polar sea theory, according to which an easily navigable sea surrounded the North Pole — were quickly debunked. The Jeannette’s officers and crew were forced to improvise and strip away all pretense. True natures emerged. It is here where Kingdom is most thrilling: in its depictions of characters. Among the Jeannette’s team were a naturalist who hoarded animal carcasses, an Inuit who hunted brilliantly and spoke to the moon, and a proud, syphilitic navigator. The Herald reporter proved to be a grudge-collecting pun fiend, to the chagrin of his colleagues and the amusement of the reader. While De Long himself is more shadowy, his tendency toward understatement is revealing, as when he called a “hell-gate” of ice shards a “ticklish thing.”
Kingdom is part thriller, part mystery, and even part romance. Timeless mythological and legendary qualities emerge; there are elements of Sisyphean effort and quixotic aspiration. (There is even an actual bout with a windmill.) But above all it is a classic adventure story, with dramatic scenes of traversing ice, sea, and seemingly prehistoric lands. That it has been told by one of New Mexico’s greatest writers makes it all the more exhilarating.
How consequential the Jeannette’s expedition ultimately was is not addressed with as much detail as are its inception and journey. Its repercussions are less obvious than those of, say, Kit Carson’s campaign against the Navajo. Sides alludes to an aftermath marked by “considerable controversy,” a tempting hint left ambiguous. However, this is fitting. The Arctic itself defies simple explanation and conclusion. It inspires “wellsprings of myth, fable, and belief” but no answers. Even today — as the Arctic ice thins — its future provokes fraught conjecture.
Hampton Sides reads from and signs copies of In the Kingdom of Ice at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226.