36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant epic adventure from a time that made heroes.,
By A Customer
This review is from: Shackleton (Paperback)
Shackleton, by Roland Huntford, has changed the way I walk. Carrying this 697 page epic around London's underground has accentuated the beginnings of a starboard list. Aye aye cap'n, tis a whopper and no mistake. But big is not boring in this case, or I would not have chugged through it on full throttle.
The book is not overweight, it has had a hard workout and carries no excess flab. But it does cover Shackleton's life comprehensively. The author makes good use of primary sources, including extracts from both Shackleton and his rival, Captain Scott's diaries on the 1902 Discovery expedition to the South Pole. He describes the battle of wills between two very different characters, culminating in Scott's decision to invalid Shackleton off the expedition. The disintegrating relationship between Scott and Shackleton threads through the first part of the biography with Huntford painting Scott as the gloomy backdrop to Shackleton's brighter outline.
The main body of the book focuses on Shackleton's Nimrod attempt to reach the pole in 1908, and the Endurance expedition of 1914. In the first, Huntford describes how Shackleton came within 97 miles of his goal in January 1909, beating Scott's furthest South at the time by 360 miles. Despite getting so close, Shackleton and his companions were forced to turn back in "one of the bravest acts in the history of exploration". Huntford juxtaposes Shackleton's selfless treatment of his men with the later demise of Scott's team just short of the pole. On his return home, Shackleton rightly received a heroic welcome. Not only had he cut a new path to the pole, later used by Scott and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who finally bagged the Pole in 1911, but more important Huntford stresses that he brought his men back alive.
If the Nimrod expedition is heroic, the Endurance expedition is awe-inspiring. With the party forced to winter in Antarctic pack ice as their boat becomes stuck and then crushed beneath the ice, Huntford shows Shackleton's full comprehension of their predicament, and ability to weigh out the right decision for his men. This care extends even to the mundane routine of their life waiting for the thaw, as Shackleton enforces exercise and activity to keep the team from psychological decay. But the most thrilling part of Huntford's account has to be the open boat journey between Elephant Island and South Georgia in a 22 foot open boat, followed by a three day march across the island's interior to reach help. This has to be one of the most remarkable feats of humankind and a true beacon to the spirit.
You cannot accuse Huntford of hero worship. He includes plenty of primary material from Shackleton's critics and recognises a definite dark streak in the explorer's character. From the point of view of wife and children, for instance, Huntford tells a different story. Shackleton's own crew admitted to preferring him offshore to on, where he could escape to the desolation of ice and sea from a succession of failed business enterprises, and, sadly, his wife's unquestioning devotion and domesticity, which only mystified and frustrated him.
Shackleton's achievements speak for themselves, and whether that makes him a hero or not doesn't really matter. It is a big book for a man who achieved much. Strange to think the world has developed too far and fast in less than a century for anyone ever to face the same challenges. I think it very much worth the read, if you have time and ballast enough.
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Initial post: 5 Nov 2009, 10:23:57 GMT
Jan Fredrik Mack says:
Amundsen never followed Shackleton's tracks. He chose an entirely different route, partly because Scott for some reason assumed that he "owned" that part of Antarctica
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