In 1914, just after the start of the Great War, Ernest Shackleton headed an expedition to the South Pole. The expedition went horribly wrong and the account of how Shackleton and his men managed to survive for two years on meagre rations, seal, and penguin meat, is gripping. One finishes the book admiring their innovation, stoicism, and sheer good nature in the midst of their ordeal.
Shackleton's measured, stoical tone is interspersed with flashes of dry humour, for example when Hussey intrigues the penguins by 'discoursing sweet music on his banjo'. There are also thrilling moments, such as the presence of killer whales and Shackleton's journey across stormy open water in a tiny boat. At one point the ice splits apart right under a tent, leaving a man in his sleeping bag in the freezing ocean with the ice rapidly closing back over him.
Shackleton also reveals the anxiety he felt about the war, about which he has absolutely no information. The group's isolation is starkly illustrated when you compare their situation in the ice with the millions of people dying in Europe. Shackleton's dedication 'to my comrades who fell in the white warfare of the South and on the red fields of France and Flanders' is very moving.
Having invested so much time in Shackleton's story it is rather a shock to leave them and read, in the last third of the book, about the fate of the expedition who were to land at the south of Antarctica and leave rations for Shackleton's men. At first the change of focus is disconcerting, but the story of these men is just as exciting and you soon find yourself becoming immersed in their adventures. Shackleton, however, does not shrink from criticising their actions at points.
From the book Shackleton emerges as a fine leader, and his men's affection and admiration for him is clear. You do wonder, though, how they ever hoped to succeed in their expedition - a point Fergus Fleming makes in his rather iconoclastic introduction.