Excerpt from In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In the Kingdom of Ice

The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides X
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 480 pages
    May 2015, 496 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Forty miles south of Cape York, De Long anchored to a large berg in order to hack away chunks of ice for the Little Juniata's freshwater stores. A large fracture suddenly developed in an overhanging arm of the berg. Sensing danger, De Long pulled away only moments before a huge block of ice fell, smashing into the sea. This, in turn, caused the entire berg to wobble, then to upend. If De Long had been only a few feet closer, the Little Juniata would have been destroyed.

So far, De Long had not seen any sign of the Polaris, or any evidence of survivors; it was perhaps quixotic to think they would, given the scale of this fogbound wilderness. But as the commander inched into higher latitudes, approaching the 75th parallel, he found himself pulled into an ever-larger mystery. The complexity of the High Arctic spread before him like a riddle. He had never felt so alive, so engaged in the moment. He realized that he was becoming what the Arctic scientists liked to call a "pagophile"—a creature that is happiest in the ice.

ON AUGUST 8, the Little Juniata became enveloped in thick fog. The seas grew restive, and within a few hours she was in a full-on gale, the tiny vessel pitching in ice-chunked swells. "At every one of the fearful plunges," De Long later wrote, "solid seas came aboard and showers of spray were thrown over, deluging everything in the boat. Our bailing made little impression."

The storm had turned the existing ice fields into a dangerous roil, while also breaking off new slabs from surrounding icebergs and hurling them into the heaving sea. The Little Juniata was in constant peril of being ground to pieces. "Looking back at it now makes me tremble," De Long wrote, "and I can only say that it was a miracle of Divine Providence that we were saved." Said Martin Maher in the Herald: "The waves, lashed to a fury, burst against these mountains of ice, breaking off ponderous-looking, solid masses, which fell into the sea with a deafening sound. The destruction of the boat and all on board now seemed imminent. We were bound up in this terrible place, the appalling precipices of ice casting off their missiles of death."

The gale raged for thirty-six hours. Somehow the Little Juniata held together, and when the storm abated, De Long was determined to resume his dash for Cape York despite the ominous fields of ice spread before him. "I was not disposed to quit without a fight," he wrote. But he was running dangerously low on coal, and his men were miserable—freezing, hungry, soaked to the bone. He couldn't get the boiler lit, as the kindling and tinder were thoroughly saturated. One of his men, after holding a friction match against his body for several hours, finally succeeded in lighting a candle, and soon the spluttery steam engine was coaxed back to life.

De Long smashed through the ice for a day, but he could see that continuing the journey would be beyond foolhardy. He had to consider "how far the lives of our little party were to be jeopardized," he wrote, noting that he felt a responsibility that "I do not desire to have again." De Long conferred with Lieutenant Chipp, whom he had come to admire for his calm sense of judgment. On August 10, Lieutenant George De Long did something he rarely ever did: He gave up. "Prosecuting the search for the Polaris people any longer was out of the question," he said. They had ventured more than four hundred miles and had crossed the 75th parallel. But now, only eight miles from Cape York, the Little Juniata was turning around.

(Unbeknownst to De Long, all the remaining survivors of the Polaris—fourteen in total—had been picked up in June by a Scottish whaling vessel. They would eventually be taken to Dundee, Scotland, and would not return home to the United States until the fall.)

De Long steered the Little Juniata through intermittent ice fields toward the south. Running out of coal to fuel the steam engine, he was forced to improvise, burning slabs of pork in the furnace.

Excerpted from In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Copyright © 2014 by Hampton Sides. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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