Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
At this stage of life I find stories about things that really happened more absorbing than novels. Maybe it’s because I want to make sure I know what real life has to offer before it’s too late. In any case, Alfred Lansing’s account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 voyage to the Antarctic is a masterpiece of non-fiction writing. From the first sentence to the last, it holds you in an iron grip. If you’re looking for something that will take your mind off what’s going on around you, this book is the answer. The narrative moves from one dire situation to the next, demonstrating what men are capable of enduring, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Without the faith, trust and self-sacrifice required to face their many privations, harsh turns of fate, and protracted physical ordeals, the men of the Endurance would have perished right away. There’s not a single woman in the story. I keep trying to imagine how things would have turned out if it had been all women instead of all men on that ship, but all I can come up with is the observation that women would probably not have had the physical strength to survive. In some way, the narrative seems to be about men as men, perhaps because stoicism and stubbornness pay off when physical survival is at stake.
The writing is superb, the tale so compellingly told you forget you’re reading it; everything seems to be happening to you. Written by the American journalist Alfred Lansing, the book, first published in 1959, and re-issued by Basic Books in 2007, was an instant success. It begins at a terrifying moment: The ship, Endurance, of the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition under the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton, is being crushed by pack ice in the middle of the Weddell Sea. The ship is 1200 miles from the nearest outpost of civilization, and equally distant from the South Pole. The plan had been for a small group to disembark, cross the Pole from West to East, subsisting on supplies left along the route by another part of the expedition. Lansing’s rendition of the death of the Endurance is a truly great piece of descriptive writing. The ship writhes in agony like a great beast, cracking and moaning, splitting and heaving. The death takes hours. And this is just the beginning. Twenty-eight men and over fifty dogs are now camped on the ice; there’s no chance of rescue; temperatures are already below zero and soon winter will be coming on.
In Lansing’s eyes, Shackleton is the story’s hero. A member of the crew said he was “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.” Another tribute goes as follows: “For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” The story supports this claim. Shackleton was extraordinary—an adventurer and a leader of men. He had already been knighted for having come within 97 miles of the South Pole on a previous expedition—closer than anyone before him, though Amundsen made it soon after, and Scott died trying. Since Peary had already reached the North Pole, the only significant enterprise remaining was to cross the Antarctic continent; for Shackleton, nothing less would do. He didn’t make it and nobody tried it again for over forty years. But what he did do—and what his men did alongside him–is so astounding that it more than transcends his failure to reach the original goal.
There is nothing to compare with the narrative that follows. The suspense is at times excruciating. For resourcefulness, ingenuity, courage, wise judgment, sheer determination and refusal to give up, Shackleton and his crew strain credulity. Among other things, they show how men can cooperate with one another, care for each other, and even manage to be happy together under what seem to be impossible conditions. What they go through is terrible, and there’s plenty of unheroic behavior, but no matter how bad the circumstances, the story never made me feel despondent. It’s one of the great exploration narratives of all time. It makes you believe in the old saying: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” And it really happened.~