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    A season in the Arctic is a great test of character.  One may know a man better after six months
    with him beyond the Arctic circle than after a lifetime of acquaintance in cities.  There is
    something--I know not what to call it--in those frozen spaces, that brings a man face to face with
    himself and with his companions; if he is a man, the man comes out; and, if he is a cur, the cur
    shows as quickly.
           -Admiral Peary

One's first impulse is to dismiss this book as just another quickie attempt to cash in on the Endurance craze, but the story of the Karluk and its crew is quite amazing in its own right and first time author Jennifer Niven does a terrific job telling it.  One year before Ernest Shackleton and Endurance set out for Antarctica, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, working under the auspices of the Canadian government, assembled an expedition intended to prove that a continent lay beneath the Arctic ice.   On June 17, 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk, captained by Robert Abram Bartlett, set sail from British Columbia with a complement of 25, including Stefansson, sailors, scientists, and Eskimos (including a mother and two young daughters), plus sled dogs and a cat. Within the six weeks the ship was frozen fast in the ice north of Alaska and Stefansson, taking three men and several sleds with dogs, had abandoned the rest of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, setting out for the mainland to continue his exploration.

For the next five months, the Karluk drifted westward with the ice floe, before finally being crushed and sunk on January 11, 1914, just east of Wrangel Island, which lies north of Siberia.  With the crew facing the predictable difficulties caused by brutal weather, a diet of pemmican, seal, and the like, snow blindness, etc, and no reason to believe that anyone even knew they were still alive, let alone where they were, Bartlett and Kataktovik, one of the Eskimo guides, set out across the shifting ice for Siberia to get help.  Meanwhile, with the departure of Bartlett, the remaining crew splintered into rival camps and added to the struggle with the elements was an atavistic struggle against each other, ending in betrayal, thievery and maybe even murder.

The story of who survives and how and of the feats that survival requires, makes for compelling reading.  Stefansson is the main villain of the story, his inadequacy as a leader beginning with his purchase of the Karluk at a bargain price, even though it was clearly not suited to ice breaking, and ending with his doctoring reports of the expedition to cast aspersions on Bartlett while portraying himself in a favorable light.  Bartlett on the other hand, the Ice Master of the title, emerges as a truly heroic figure.  There are plenty of other heroes and villains--one of the more interesting of the former is Seaman Hugh "Clam" Williams, whose nickname is more than justified when he stoically sits through having his frostbitten toe cut off with a pair of shears--and myriad instances of courage and cowardice.

The reader can't help being torn between questioning the common sense of the men who followed the obviously incompetent Stefansson and admiration for the fortitude that many of them displayed in the face of disaster.  And just as you're coming to grips with this quandary, the author provides a helpful endnote where she reveals that various survivors fought in WWI, returned to Arctic exploration and one even joined a colonization party that Stefansson later sent to Wrangel Island, with predictably tragic results.  It all makes for thrilling reading, side by side with alternately troubling and uplifting glimpses of the deeds of which humans are capable when they are pushed to their limits.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Jennifer Niven (2 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Ice Master, by Jennifer Niven (FSB Associates)
    -BOOK SITE : The Ice Master (Pan MacMillan)
    -INTERVIEW : with Jennifer Niven (Pan MacMillan)
    -Biography: Robert Abram Bartlett
    -ESSAY : Bob Bartlett (Thomas E. Appleton, A  History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services)
    -Robert Abram Bartlett Papers (Bowdoin College Library)
    -Hawthorne Cottage National Historic Site
    -Great Canadian Explorers : Vilhjalmur Stefansson
    -Map of Wrangel & Herald Islands
    -Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean Theme Page : This theme page is an information resource for the scientific investigation of the biology, oceanography, meteorology and ecology of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean
    -MARINE REGION 2: ARCTIC :  Editors: Chris Bleakley and Vera Alexander
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master (Julie Wheelwright, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master   (Leonard Guttridge, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk By Jennifer Niven (John Wilson, Globe and Mail)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven (Chris Woodhead, Booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master (Walter Ellis, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of The Ice Master: the doomed 1913 voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven (Julie Wheelwright, Independent uk)