Thursday, July 9, 2009

Surviving the Most Hostile Place on Earth

When I was in library school, I read a bunch of books for my juvenile and young adult literature classes. The one that impressed me the most was Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance, by Jennifer Armstrong. Starting in 1915, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and his crew were stranded south of the Antarctic Circle for more than a year. They had no ship and no way to contact the outside world. All 28 men survived.

Jennifer Armstrong does a wonderful job, describing Antarctica, a continent that supports glaciers up to two miles in depth. There are winds close to 200 miles per hour and the temperature can sink to 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

And she tells how the crew, including a stowaway, suffered, but persevered.

After their ship Endurance was crushed by the ice, "Shackleton announced his plan to the crew: they would march across the frozen sea with two of the three lifeboats to Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest. To the best of Shackleton's knowledge, there was a cache of stores in a hut on Paulet Island from a 1902 Swedish expedition. What they would do once they reached this destination was not specified: it was enough to have a goal... They would have to walk the whole way, hauling their gear and the two boats. The men knew they were doomed without the boats; eventually they would reach open water. They would need the boats, no matter how burdensome they were to drag over the ice...

"... there was much to get ready... While McNeish and McLeod began fitting the lifeboats onto sledges, the rest of the crew began sorting their equipment. The men were given a two-pound limit on personal gear, which allowed them to keep only the items that were essential for survival -- although the Boss did allow them to keep their diaries and their tobacco, and the doctors were allowed their medical supplies. In a dramatic gesture, Shackleton took his gold cigarette case and a handful of gold coins from his pocket and dropped them on the snow. Gold was useless for the task ahead...

"...the men hauling the Caird and the Docker (two large lifeboats) were sinking up to their knees in slush, and their boots were filling with seven pounds of freezing water with each step... in three days they covered only seven miles..."

The book is illustrated with pictures taken by the crew photographer. And Armstrong tells a little about what happened to the crew after they got back to England.

This is the most incredible adventure story imaginable. If you like it, you might also enjoy Marooned: The Strange but True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe; and Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex.

I'll post reviews, but I have to read them first!

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Heather J. said...

I'm completely fascinated by this story - I've read several books about Shackleton's experiences, and also one about the Ross Sea Party (called The Lost Men - great book!). This is DEFINITELY a story that could interest boys - even my 7 yr old son thinks it is fascinating.

gonovice said...

I've thought about reading another Shackleton book. Wondering - is there one in particular you'd recommend? And I'll look for The Lost Men, too. Thanks!

Colleen said...

The Lost Men was fantastic - I reviewed it for Booklist and then again (in more detail) at Eclectica Magazine. (

The whole thing fascinates me as well. Great stuff!