Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
By Alfred Lansing

If there is a sub-genre of literature that I enjoy almost as much as zombie literature it's anything that has to do with polar exploration. And while I do enjoy a good novel on the subject (i.e. The Terror by Dan Simmons), absolutely nothing compares to the real life dramas that unfolded on the ice at either end of our planet at the tail end of the great age of exploration. I have devoured more than my fair share of non-fiction books on the subjects of Franklin, Scott and Admunsen. Pages filled with endless winters, frostbite and blubber. Stories that burble with the constant threat of hunger, exposure and death. Each of ten rife with tragedy, perseverance and thankless heroism. And for what? Usually nothing more than the whim of an adventurer and the glory of the day. Like the French, Spanish and British captains of the early days of North American exploration, there are so many characters in the great age of polar exploration. The recklessness of Greeley, they mystery of Franklin, the steely determination of Admunsen, the tragedy of Scott and the absolute true grit of Ernest Shackleton, the man whose expedition spent two years on the Antarctic ice and lived to tell the tale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ernest Shackleton, he was a  British explorer whose 1915 expedition is famous for its almost interminable time floating on Antarctic pack ice. Shackleton and his team had set out to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent on foot but they never even made landfall as their ship, the Endurance, become frozen fast into the thick pack ice that forms on the Weddell Sea. Over the course of the winter they spent on the ice, the pressure eventually crushed and sank the ship, leaving the entire expedition exposed on the ice and drifting with the pack.

Through the gutsy leadership of Shackleton and the diligent measurements made by Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, the entire expedition and crew of the ship were able to survive the ice and a harrowing sea journey to the nearby Elephant Island (off the end of the Palmer Peninsula). From their Shackleton and Worsley outfitted one of their three small skiffs, the James Caird, for an even more harrowing journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island, across the Drake Passage, a body of water known as the most dangerous on the planet.

In these latitudes, as nowhere else on Earth, the sea girdles the globe, uninterrupted by any mass of land. Here, since the beginning of time, the winds have mercilessly driven the seas clockwise around the Earth to return again to their birthplace where they reinforce themselves or one another.

And what is quite possibly the most remarkable thing about the Shackleton expedition is not the year they spent on the ice or their miraculous dash across the Drake Passage or even their impromptu crossing of South Georgia Island in order to reach the whaling station on Stromness Bay (a feat that was not repeated until 1954) but rather the fact that not a single member of the expedition lost their life. Of all the hands that left London in 1914, every one of them returned. Very few successful expeditions to the polar regions returned without casualties. It is a testament to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton that in the face of disaster, he was able to maintain order and persevere.

And it is Shackleton's leadership that is the focal point of Alfred Lansing's classic account of this remarkable expedition, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. Taken from the astonishing amount of primary source materials available to Lansing (i.e. the personal diaries of virtually all the men on the expedition) and given the exceptional quality of these sources, Lansing paints a picture of a dichotomous leader. Shackleton seems reckless to the point of disinterested in the planning stages of the expedition, making personnel choices based on anemic interviews and hunches. However, whatever selection process he used, it seemed to work because once on the ice, Shackleton's ability to lead in the face of extreme adversity was beyond reproach.

While the reader may disagree about Shackleton's motives and his heedless preparations for the voyage, it is difficult to question his ability as a leader in peril. From the outset, Shackleton had an almost innate ability to get the most from the men around him and the correct measure of tact to maintain order and cohesiveness even as the expedition was facing mortal peril. With very few exceptions, the entire team was able to maintain cordial relations throughout the almost two year ordeal without resorting to violence or mutiny. While a degree of credit should go to the men, it was Shackleton that brought them together and it was Shackleton that ensured they stayed together. One can only extrapolate from that that it was also Shackleton who ensured that all hands returned.

But what makes this book stand along side some of the other pillars of polar literature (The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Admunsen's Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntford) is the author's ability to allow the story to work for itself rather than resort to embellishment and hyperbole. Lansing deals with his subject in the clinical, matter-of-fact way in which a good chronicler should. Certainly the events of Shackleton's two year adventure on the Antarctic ice (never once setting foot on the actual continent, I might add) are fantastical enough, certainly there is no need for a writer to garnish the story with over-wrought trimmings. It is difficult to add much to the open-boat voyage of the James Caird without resorting to mythologizing. Better writers have done so in the past, so it is a testament to Lansing that he has resisted, and it certainly must have been a temptation.

If you, like me, devour books about polar expeditions (and I especially like reading them during the sweaty Taiwanese summers, it helps me cool off just a bit) then this is a good call. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is both well researched and accessible. It shies away from the florid language of myth-making, maintaining the tone and pace of the materials from which it was born. It is often difficult to construct a compelling narrative from the personal recollections of a dozen men, but Lansing is apt to the challenge. Indeed he has written a book that should be viewed as a pillar in the genre.  One that should be read be an would-be Antarctic explorer (even if their armchair is preferable to and slightly more comfortable than the confines of the James Caird).


Brian Joseph said...

I had seen this book around and had always been interested. though I do not believe that I ever read any of these polar expedition books before, this looks to be something that I would really like.

Ashley said...

Wow. That sounds like a book I would love! I'll add it to my ever-growing list of books to read.

Ashley (Closed the Cover)

Post a Comment