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Book Review: Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story

Reading ListCarrie PomeroyComment

Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story
by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace (Calkins Creek)

Have a kid who enjoys true-life survival stories? Is your family studying polar explorers, post-Civil War America, or the Arctic? This page-turning nonfiction book for ages 10 and up would be a great addition to your reading list.

Award-winning authors Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace tell the story of U.S. naval officer George Washington De Long’s ill-fated 1879 attempt to reach the North Pole on the U.S.S. Jeannette, exploring what went wrong on the voyage and bringing the ship’s crew to vivid, memorable life. Using the extensive records kept by De Long and other crew members as source material, the Wallaces give readers a close-up look as the Jeannette gets locked in by ice and De Long and his men fight for life through one dramatic setback after another.

One of the things that kept me gobbling up this book were its many surprises. One of the first surprises was learning that in the 19th century, many people believed that there might be a tropical sea at the North Pole. The desire to discover and explore this fabled tropical seascape was part of what drove George W. De Long on his journey.

The book also has an interesting connection to today’s debates over fake news and media sensationalism. One of the funders of the voyage was James George Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald and purveyor of outrageous, sometimes completely fabricated news stories, including an account of escaped zoo animals in New York City goring and mauling people—a completely phony tale. The Herald’s fictionalized accounts of the Jeannette’s voyage misled the crew’s loved ones and fanned wild rumors throughout the two years the crew was out of touch with the rest of the world.

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

Another interesting aspect of the Wallaces’ account is the way it demonstrates the danger of making important, life-and-death decisions on the basis of junk science. De Long based much of his planning for his polar voyage on the theories of a so-called North Pole authority who argued that explorers could easily reach the North Pole in two months if they followed a warm Pacific current called the Kuro Siwo. This ill-informed “expert” predicted that explorers would find polar regions “more or less free from ice” and theorized that an expedition could safely complete a North Pole expedition in a couple of months. 

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

One of the biggest pleasures of Bound by Ice is the way the Wallaces bring the members of the expedition to life with small, vivid details. We learn that Civil War hero and chief engineer George Melville was annoyed by the ship meteorologist’s tendency to burst into snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan songs. We discover that the ship naturalist was tortured by dreams of pumpkin pie, “the particular weakness of a New England Yankee,” as he put it, when the men’s diets had dwindled down to a monotonous round of canned vegetables and seal and polar bear meat. 

Another compelling aspect of the book is the tender love story between De Long and his wife Emma. The authors thread excerpts from De Long’s letters to Emma throughout the adventure, reminding readers of the very personal stakes involved in this real-life drama.

The story of the Jeannette definitely has tragic elements. But it’s also a deeply inspiring story of persistence, teamwork, and devotion to making a contribution to science and history. Readers will come away with a new perspective on the North Pole and a fresh appreciation for the sacrifices that explorers have made to expand our knowledge of the world.