One of the main consequences of industrialisation in the late 1800s in America was the development of new and improved shipping vessels. These vessels opened up the possibility to reach the north pole that had hitherto been just a dream. Beginning from the 1860s, many expeditions were launched in order to conquer the north and place the flag of the country upon the pole. Most of these missions were British, but the failure of each one of them led to few investors willing to invest money. Also, the advancement of American ships made the proponents of polar expeditions believe that the success of such missions could only come from across the Atlantic. In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette is about one such polar expedition undertaken by Captain George Washington de Long and 32 other seamen in 1879.
August Petermann was a German cartographer whose theory had helped spawn the race towards the pole. Although he had never been on any mission himself, he had drawn detailed maps of the north from first-hand accounts of those who had been there. He was also a proponent of the Open Polar Sea, an ice-free expanse of the ocean near the pole believed to be due to the crossing of the Gulf Stream and the Kira Suwa, two warm ocean currents which helped to melt the ice. Petermann believed that once the ice wall was crossed, there was a wide expanse of open ocean where ice-free sailing towards the pole was possible. This was the route that Captain de Long and his ship took in that fateful year of 1879. They would go via the Bering Strait to the north and not through the west coast of Greenland as had been done previously.
Hampton Sides retells a sordid tale of hope of people including de Long and the expedition financier Bennett Jr for being among the first to reach the pole; the hope of Emma-de Long’s wife-that he will return home safe and that of the countless civilians waiting with bated breath for news that one of their own had conquered one of the last remaining lands on the earth. Indeed Sides intersperses his narrative with letters from Emma to her husband, asking him to be safe on the journey and always telling him that she and their daughter would be waiting for him when he returns. The journey of de Long and his mates across the north and their fate forms the crux of the story.
Sides is a great author for those of you who are interested in nonfiction in general. He researches his books well and presents the story in a manner that is factual and at the same time not too boring, which I believe is a good quality to have.