Another firm 5 stars for this book - an engrossing story told with narrative panache and wonderful attention to detail. I've now read most of the key texts about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (a recent weird obsession), and this was the real standout for me, documenting one of the most incredible stories, and in the most satisfying way. This despite being a 'sideline' to the previously far more well-documented expeditionary stories of Scott and Shackleton. Perhaps part of its initial charm lies in being an underdogs' tale from the outset. But I also found it to offer some of the most thought-provoking insights into the whole subject of early polar expeditions (more on this later...); in fact, one of the most thought-provoking studies of human grit and endurance in any field.
Piecing together such a coherent, balanced and detailed historical recollective from very old and far-flung sources, whilst making it read more like a novel than a thesis, is an exceptional literary feat. The author is not afraid to add her own interpretive insights when this brings an important guiding hand of balance, but the story always feels personal to the Ross Sea Party's experiences, rather than a distant historical record.
[mild spoiler alert from this point; hopefully not gratuitous!].
Pacing is excellent throughout, from the chaotic set-up to the adventure (Shackleton's chaos, not the author's!) all the way to the 'what happened to the key players afterwards?' epilogues; the latter are very poignant - you come to really care for individuals' fates and wish them a long, easy life afterwards - not all got one.
Despite the almost unbearable hardships detailed (the poor dogs' miserable existences especially are enough to move a grown man to tears) it is oddly digestible. So don't be put off by an anticipated gruelling read, as i nearly was. With the author's deft introductions, you quickly come to care deeply about these people, and feel compelled to follow as their story unfolds. This, and a constantly human touch, gets the reader through the more harrowing parts - it's a real page turner to very end. Unlike Scott's famous expeditionary journal, this story doesn't have an inescapable sense of melancholic, impending doom hanging over the whole narrative; there is tragedy here, but also triumph and redemption of sorts. This book also tempers the hard facts of the Antarctic slog with a more revealing window into the motivations, personalities and interactions (including hearteningly familiar squabbling) of the expeditionary members; much of this human detail was airbrushed out in the sanitized, politically-cautious records of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen et al.
Whilst Shackleton only has a relatively minor direct role here, his reach from afar is palpable, shaping the story and, especially, informing the way the men responded when their expedition started to unravel. He must have been quite a man. But it also becomes clear from the unfolding evidence of his expeditionary preparations that he seems to have woefully underestimated the challenges of his proposed Antarctic crossing. This perhaps reflected the rushed timescales, as he was racing to get his expedition underway in the run up to seemingly inevitable war (which became WW1) before these events could sweep it aside. But never the less, he had made a number of almost laughably bad assumptions when planning the polar crossing, which seems bizarre given his two prior experiences on the continent (the first of which nearly killed him) and the cautionary tale of Scott just two years previously. There were just too many things that could go wrong and, yet again, absolutely no margin for error; even with everything else working in his favour, staying alive on the sledging diet was, alone, akin to Russian roulette, despite attempted improvements. Previously costly mistakes seem to have been destined to be repeated again and again (perhaps because there was simply no realistic way to respond otherwise to the challenges at the time, but perhaps not). The benefits of historical hindsight not withstanding, it seems particularly crazy to have intended to set out on a totally uncharted route to the pole whilst relying completely on the work of an inexperienced, poorly briefed and very under-resourced team coming towards him from the other side of the world (with whom he had no method of communicating, or knowing if they even arrived safely in Antarctica at all), to lay - in time and visibly - the depots upon which his subsequent survival would entirely depend. Neither was there time or a realistic contingency to allow retracing of steps. Even though the Ross Sea Party did succeed in fulfilling their support mission, in the face of incredible odds, from what i read in this book, it seems likely to me that, with all the other bad assumptions in the mix, had Shackleton actually initiated the crossing of the continent he would still have had a pretty small chance of succeeding. And considering that failure beyond a certain point of no return could only result in one thing, i now think it highly likely he would have died in the attempt, a grim repeat of Scott's Terra Nova polar expedition. And how differently he might have been remembered as a result. So in the end, perhaps his famous expeditionary misfortunes resulted in a doubly-lucky escape? This is not explicitly debated or concluded in the book, and so you might wonder why I am meandering into such speculation within a book review, but its relevant as I think the sheer precariousness of Shackleton's intended Antarctic crossing is a message that does emerge pretty strongly here, and not from other accounts; books covering the Weddell Sea Party's more famous tale don't cover this ground, because Shackleton's polar party didn't ever set foot on the continent; theoretical sledging logistics (and possible impending catastrophic failures of these), are therefore pushed aside.
In fact, after reading this book I wondered for the first time whether the whole concept of polar exploration, with the technological capabilities of the time, was actually just fundamentally foolhardy and idiotic, and not worth the extraordinary cost exacted on the supporting players (not least their poor, wretched beasts of burden). Perhaps they really should have left alone, or at least been much more cautious, tempering the astonishingly ambitious, grueling and primarily ego-driven, `record journey' attempts and concentrating on making steadier progress and pushing forward the scientific objectives. Although, as Shackleton himself noted, `without the Pole, there is no science' reflecting the realities of raising the necessary funds by promising expeditionary glories, set against more temperate and scholarly aims. But for the first time i feel like i have been given enough insight to make me ponder the reputation-making motives of the great polar explorers, and the ethics of their expeditions, a bit more soberly. Plenty of people voiced concerns in Shackleton's time, so perhaps this is not just retrospective judgement from the safety of comfortable modern armchair. The costs just seem to have been extraordinarily savage, and repeatedly, predictably so, in the face of ongoing questionable rewards.
I think there are deep truths and insights in all this too, equally applicable today, about the internal workings of the great risk-taking, charismatic entrepreneurs who are likely to find their way to the forefront of our species' ongoing great adventures, and what that might mean for the people who support and enable them. Challenging stuff then if you want to ruminate.
After reading this book, every time i think i'm having a bad time or facing tough challenges, i only need to cast my mind back to the vivid pictures painted about the Ross Sea Party's trials to very promptly re-evaluate my own easy existence and its minor irritations. Awesome, humbling stuff.