The good (c)old days of exploration
BARROW'S BOYS By Fergus Fleming Atlantic Monthly Press 512 pp., $26Skip to next paragraph
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GHOSTS OF CAPE SABIN By Leonard Guttridge Putnam 354 pp., $27.95
No Gore-Tex? GPS devices? Portable ovens? Absolutely not. Two superb new books welcome the modern Krakauer fan to the world view of 19th-century expeditions.
"The Man Who Ate His Boots" is the title of one chapter in Fergus Fleming's Barrow's Boys, coming out in April. The chapter's cutesy appellation applies to Sir John Franklin, who bumbled into the wastes of northern Canada. Starving, he resorted to munching on his leather footwear.
Franklin's outfitter, bureaucrat John Barrow of the British Admiralty, didn't mind. He embodied the Romantic era Zeitgeist, struggling to fill the last blank spaces at the fringes of maps - first with his errant imagination and then with men who willingly tossed their lives into the unknown.
"Barrow's Boys" is both about John Barrow, his vision and his petulance, and the 20 or so naval geographic expeditions he sent to the Arctic, Antarctica, and Central Africa. Most missions suffered from inexperienced leadership, horrible planning, petty disagreements, penny pinching, and mismatched expectations.
These voyagers were not taking a one-day skinny dip - they moldered in ice-locked ships through multiple, sunless winters. "Exposed metal burned like fire to the touch, removing skin at anything more than a fleeting touch," Fleming writes.
Ultimately, privations alone cannot make a compelling narrative. What the cozy reader wants from harrowing expedition tales is insight into those who undertook them. Fleming delivers with firsthand accounts from diaries, meticulously crafted details, and devastatingly dry wit.
Barrow and his boys had a burning curiosity and indefatigable stubbornness. They wouldn't be held back by a map's border, an ice sheet's impenetrability, or an archipelago's maze. They wanted freedom to "ride the globe" unfettered.
And what happened to the man who ate his boots? He made it home and cheerily set out on another expedition for Barrow. No one has seen him since.
In the 1870s, a new paradigm for arctic exploration emerged: multinational scientific observation. The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, retold in Leonard Guttridge's Ghosts of Cape Sabine, was the United States's chief contribution to the new effort. It was a disaster.
The finger-pointing and recriminations began almost from the expedition's start. Crew members whittled away the long arctic hours penning vitriolic missives about one another. Boukreev and Krakauer's rival accounts of the 1996 Everest disaster look like a gentlemen's disagreement compared with the antagonism complicating this expedition narrative.
As chief officer, Lt. Adolphus Greely was charged with setting up an observation station in the high latitudes of Ellesmere Island (directly adjacent to Northern Greenland). The station was successfully set up, but not before the entire crew had decided Greely was an odious leader, with a terrible temper and a high degree of dictatorial indifference. For his part, Greely considered most of his officers and crew mutinous. He arrested several of his men and scattered demotions like leaflets.
Despite the early discord, all might have been fine if US supply ships had relieved the station as planned. However, the American government failed to reach Lady Franklin Bay, first through bureaucratic apathy, then by staggering ineptitude.
The third year's attempt was a charm, but by the time the ships arrived, all but seven members had died of starvation, execution, or worse. While not as expertly told as "Barrow's Boys," the focus on only one expedition brings the reader further into daily details.
I have only one quibble with both books: a shortage of maps provided by the publishers. The members of these expeditions died to produce such charts. It is unconscionable to be stingy with them.
* Ben Arnoldy is on the staff of the Monitor's Electronic Edition, csmonitor.com
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