In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides returns with a white-knuckle tale of polar exploration and survival in the Gilded Age

In the late nineteenth century, people were obsessed by one of the last unmapped areas of the globe: the North Pole. No one knew what existed beyond the fortress of ice rimming the northern oceans, although theories abounded. The foremost cartographer in the world, a German named August Petermann, believed that warm currents sustained a verdant island at the top of the world. National glory would fall to whoever could plant his flag upon its shores.

James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric and stupendously wealthy owner of The New York Herald, had recently captured the world’s attention by dispatching Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone. Now he was keen to re-create that sensation on an even more epic scale. So he funded an official U.S. naval expedition to reach the Pole, choosing as its captain a young officer named George Washington De Long, who had gained fame for a rescue operation off the coast of Greenland. De Long led a team of 32 men deep into uncharted Arctic waters, carrying the aspirations of a young country burning to become a world power. On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco to cheering crowds in the grip of “Arctic Fever.”

The ship sailed into uncharted seas, but soon was trapped in pack ice. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the hull was breached. Amid the rush of water and the shrieks of breaking wooden boards, the crew abandoned the ship. Less than an hour later, the Jeannette sank to the bottom,and the men found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies. Thus began their long march across the endless ice—a frozen hell in the most lonesome corner of the world. Facing everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and frosty labyrinths, the expedition battled madness and starvation as they desperately strove for survival.

With twists and turns worthy of a thriller, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most unforgiving territory on Earth.

Review by Gene Seymour , Special for USA TODAY

Maybe it’s because they’re the parts of our world that most resemble the forbidding, enigmatic terrain of other planets. Whatever the reason, the North and South Polar regions have long been romanticized as places where dreams — and dreamers — go to die.

One often wonders why most people need to be reminded of the names of polar conquerors such as Roald Amundsen, Matthew Henson and Robert Peary while the stories of noted also-rans Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott continue to be told in print and on-screen.

Yet before the release of Hampton Sides’ newest historic chronicle, In the Kingdom of Ice, I’m betting few present-day Americans have heard of the USS Jeannette and its commander, George DeLong.

In July 1879, DeLong left with a team of 32 men for what August Petermann, the most famous mapmaker of that era, swore was an “Open Polar Sea” with currents warm and friendly enough to carry whoever sailed them to the top of the world. Two years later, the ship was crushed into a watery grave by pack ice and its crew marooned on an ice cap north of Siberia with three boats and barely enough provisions to survive.

By 1881 … well, it will hardly spoil things to tell you that nobody makes it to the North Pole. But as with the oft-recounted sagas of Shackleton’s and Scott’s star-crossed Antarctic expeditions, the struggles of DeLong and his crew to survive and work their way out of their dire predicament somehow make an even more compelling story than a hypothetical one of ultimate conquest.

Sides spins a propulsive narrative from obscure documents, journals and his own firsthand visits to the Arctic regions visited by the Jeannette and its crew. In the Kingdom of Ice makes for harrowing reading as it recounts the grim aspects of the explorers’ battle for survival: illness, crippling frostbite, snow-blindness and the prospect of starvation. As grisly as the details are, you keep turning pages to find out how DeLong and his men pull themselves past each setback — even though there’s always another one looming ahead.

The book’s vivid portraits make you care even more. DeLong was a studious, stalwart Navy officer seeking through this polar dare some of the glory he believed he’d missed out on from the Civil War. His crewmembers were more colorful, from mercurial navigator John Danenhower (who carried out his task throughout with a near-crippling eye infection) and doughty ship engineer George Melville to crusty ice pilot William Dunbar and temperamental meteorologist Jerome Collins.

Then there are the voyage’s eccentric guiding spirits, especially James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant and grandly profligate New York newspaper magnate who financed the expedition and comes across in this book like a precursor to the hotel-ransacking rock stars of the next century. And there’s the aforementioned Petermann, whose speculations of a warm-water gateway to the pole proved spectacularly, tragically mistaken. Then again, given the more dire predictions of climate-change expectations, he might have been only a couple centuries premature.