My last Hampton Sides book was a superb biography of Kit Carson. I didn’t find this one quite so compelling, probably because the central figure–George de Long–was neither as historically familiar nor as colorful as Carson. However, that’s not to say Sides hasn’t chosen a tale worth telling and done it well.
The late nineteenth century was an age, not unlike our own, when folks believed technology could conquer all, could take us into worlds unknown and show us the wonders hidden there. One of those unknown worlds was the north pole, a region about which there was great speculation–some of it so convincingly told that scientists and the hoi polloi alike believed it. There was an open river, you see, above the ice. How could the ice hold up, after all, so close to the sun? And if you could channel your way through the arctic somehow, there would be clear sailing to the temperate top of the globe.
George de Long and his steel-sheathed Savannah set out to see what they could find. Armed with all the tools of the day, they expected they could persevere through whatever privation and hardships awaited. They didn’t know how long it would take or exactly how things would go, but they looked forward to victory.
The story of this expedition is one of inconceivable trials and heroism beyond imagination. It, and the public’s fascination with the voyage and reception of the results, is captivating and remarkable.
Sides chose his subject well, researched it to within an inch of its scientific and literary life, and tells the story in a prose that pulls us through the story with all the suspense of a novelist. True life that transcends fiction, it rivals de Long’s contemporaries such as Wells and Verne for pure adventure and peril.
It’s a good one.