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In The Kingdom of Ice - Book Review

I'm not a masochist. Oh sure, I still chase women. Not literally, and less frequently with less psychological damage. To me, I mean. But if I were a masochist, I'd read In The Kingdom of Ice like women read in The Crown of Thorns. If you know what I mean.

If you don't, let me tell you: the crew of the USS Jeanette suffered more deprivation, hardship, injury and despair than any dungeon would dare inflict on paying customers. Which Hampton Sides' account of the crews' fate describes in excruciating detail. But first...

Hit or Myth

Mr. Sides makes sure we know what scientists in the late 1800's thought lay at the top of the world: a warm polar ocean. Warm as in balmy. Full of marine life, cut off from the rest of the world. Perhaps even a lost tribe of humans!

And so nations sent sailing/steam ships North to crash through the mythical that-is-to-say-non-existent polar girdle to reach the North Pole. Obvious failure and, more often than not, horrific death resulting.

Specifically, drowning at sea or getting stuck in the Arctic pack ice, then starving or freezing to death. or waiting months, even years for rescue. Or disappearing without a trace. Sometimes leaving a gruesome tableaux for "rescuers."

A Most Unlikely Pair

Against this backdrop of disinformation and death, Kingdom introduces its main characters: James Gordon Bennet Jr. (above) and George Washington De Long.

The former being the fabulously rich playboy publisher of The New York Herald, the latter being an upright, uptight and all-right Naval officer looking to make his mark on history.


No prizes for guessing which one ends up an emaciated artifact in a Siberian hellscape, along with ten of his men, all of whom have lost body parts to frostbite. And which one pisses in a piano at an elegant soiree and engages in one of the last formal duels in American history.

I put spoiler alert assuming that most Kingdom readers will have never heard of Lt. De Long's misguided, ill-fated journey, never mind Bennett's financial sponsorship of the Jeanette, its crew and expenses, both necessary (e.g., hull hardening) and fruitless (e.g., early iterations of electric lighting and telephony).

If you don't fully credit the title's subhead ("The grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeanette"), Google De Long or read this review, then Kingdom could be read as a nail-biter. A non-fiction thriller.

In the Kingdom of Ice is certainly fiction-y enough. Sides' sometimes purple prose is the polar opposite of the turgid tomes that stopped tens of millions of Americans from giving a shit about their nation's history. Or any history.

Sides adds so much atmospheric detail, psychological insight and narrative depth one wonders how the author found enough mental space to recognize his dog, should he have one. And just so you know, over 40 dogs were hurt in the production of this book. In the narrative, that is.

Kingdom is an occasionally florid narrative in the tradition of historical fiction (e.g., E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime). If you read In The Kingdom of Ice as a novel, without knowing the Jeanette expedition went slowly but seriously tits up, you will be slowly but seriously bummed.

Through ingenuity, perspicacity and good luck, De Long (above) and all but a handful of his crew endure a thousand mile journey through frozen hell – only to die at the final furlong.

Reading of their tragic travails leaves you with admiration for De Long's leadership and a strong desire to turn up the heat, grab some snacks and hide in your bed. A "safe space" in which to appreciate Kingdom's philosophical underpinning: that history is forged by some crazy people doing crazy shit, often for completely crazy reasons.

People like Bennett and De Long – maniacs of one sort or another – create and/or end up in crazy situations best characterized by two words: not good.

The fact that De Long couldn't extricate himself or most of his crew from torture of his own making is neither here nor there. As my marital and dating history proves, fortune favors the brave. Except when it doesn't.

I recommend In the Kingdom of Ice as a readable if ultimately depressing reminder that the plans of mice and men often go awry. That ours is not to try, but to do or die. Or do and die. Hopefully, a lot more comfortably than George Washington De Long.

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