Hampton Sides, a Memphis native, must have spent many a youthful summer longing for even a breath of cool air in that unbearably humid heat. It’s a feeling the whole country shares in August, which may explain the timing of Sides’s new book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, which was released in during the height of summer’s dog days. Fortunately, the book’s critical reception has been far from icy: the literary establishment, it seems, was longing for a breath of cool air, too.
“Sides’ book is a masterful work of history and storytelling, and it rewards patient readers with scenes of human strength and frailty they will long remember,” writes Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times.
“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,” writes Gene Seymour in USA Today. “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.”
“Thanks to Sides’s copious mining of primary and first-person sources—including memoirs, official Navy documents, and De Long’s journals and private correspondence—readers get to experience at close range the Jeannette crew’s trek across the melting ice, this ‘sorry-looking set; in ignominious retreat,” writes Gary Krist in The Washington Post.
“As in Hellhound on His Trail, Sides’s earlier book exploring the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., here Sides again demonstrates that he knows how to blend human drama with suspense and engrossing play-by-play descriptions. Readers will marvel at the hardy ingenuity of De Long’s crew and hope they make it out alive,” writes Randy Dotinga in The Christian Science Monitor.
“In the Kingdom of Ice is a harrowing story well told, but it is more than just that,” observes Robert R. Harris in The New York Times. “Sides illuminates Gilded Age society, offering droll anecdotes of Bennett’s escapades in New York, Newport and Europe. The author also convincingly portrays what it was like to survive in northern Siberia and provides an engaging account of the voyage of the Corwin, a kind of mail and police steamer that searched for the Jeannette and carried John Muir as a supernumerary.”
But the most reliable voice for In the Kingdom of Ice is Sides’s own: the story he tells about discovering the story of the Jeannette and conducting research for it is as compelling as the story of the Jeannette itself. Fittingly, Sides explains the origin of the book in an interview in National Geographic:
I actually first found out about it by virtue of writing a story for National Geographic about the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. There is a museum dedicated to him and his vessel, the Fram, in Oslo. While I was there, I kept seeing references to the U.S.S. Jeannette and to the American explorer George Washington De Long.
I said: Wow! What is this thing? I’m an American, but I’ve never heard of this before. So I filed that away as a good journalist should and started burrowing slowly but surely into the primary material when I got home. What I found was this amazing story, which was a sensation in its time but had somehow slipped between the cracks of history.
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