Not Only to Endure But to Prevail
I read this book when it was first published and then published a review about it in 2000 after I had spent several hours examining an exhibition that was on view from April until October, 1999, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It documented one of the greatest tales of survival in expedition history: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 voyage to the Antarctic. Just one day’s sail from the continent, the ship Endurance became trapped in sea ice. Frozen fast for ten months, the ship was crushed and destroyed by ice pressure, and the crew was forced to abandon ship. After camping on the ice for five months, Shackleton made two open boat journeys, one of which–a treacherous 800-mile ocean crossing to South Georgia Island–is now considered one of the greatest boat journeys in history. Trekking across the mountains of South Georgia, Shackleton reached the island’s remote whaling station, organized a rescue team, and saved all of the men he had left behind.
If you were to select the best single volume from which to learn about the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, it would be this one or Dennis N. T. Perkins’ Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. What you have is a seamless blend of narrative with photographs, most of them taken by Frank Hurley throughout the expedition. The volume has been beautifully produced by Alfred A. Knopf. However, with all due respect to aesthetics, the “story” of that legendary expedition, brilliantly told by Caroline Alexander, is what invests this volume with its compelling appeal. With skills worthy of Homer, Dante Aligheri, and Herman Melville, she traces a series of voyages which began on August 14, 1914, when Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 set sail for the South Antarctic “in pursuit of the last unclaimed prize in the history of exploration: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent.”
It is two years later, on August 30, 1916, that Alexander concludes her “story” with the rescue of those crew members whom Shackleton was forced to leave behind on Elephant Island. He and a few others rowed out to sea in the one remaining boat, thus beginning another “story” which had a happy ending. Later, en route home from Elephant Island, in a letter written to his wife, Shackleton observes: “I have done it. Damn the Admiralty….Not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”
No brief commentary such as this can possibly suggest the nature and extent of heroism, terror, ingenuity, and (yes) endurance which Alexander describes so vividly. They are all here in a single volume, waiting for you to experience them almost as if you yourself were a member of the crew.