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Jennifer Niven - The Ice Master

"It was frightening, but beautiful. Even as it produced mayhem, the Arctic could create great scenes of beauty. Ice crystals often seemed to float in the air, sometimes forming glowing halos around the sun and the moon. And on quiet nights, there was a rustling in the air that the Eskimos called the 'whisper of the stars.'" (p. 230)
Imagine Survivor in the Arctic. Now take away the provisions and provide the contestants with only some bad Spam. Make them create their own clothes. Extend the time they are stuck out there from between 3 and 35 days to about a year, but don't tell the contestants that their ordeal will be up in a year; keep them thinking that it will be a couple of years or death, whichever comes first. Next, drop them off when there is nothing but darkness 24 hours a day. After a few months you can torment them some more by turning the lights on for 24 hours a day causing them to go snow blind if they open their eyes for much of the never ending days. For final kicks, don't start their journey out on land. Put them on ice 100 or so miles from any land with open leads, cracking ice, and barriers of ice up to 100 feet in height surrounding them; then see how many can even make it to land alive. There you have The Ice Master in a nutshell.

Sound interesting? It is. Very much so. Sound like fiction? It isn't. This really happened, but not many lived to tell about the torment.

The Ice Master is a tad slow going for the first 50-100 pages. Don't you dare let that stop you from reading on! The last 300 pages contain some of the most incredible experiences and finest writing you will ever lay eyes on. I thought In Harm's Way was a page turner. That was nothing compared to this. The victims in that true life WW2 story were either rescued or dead within a few days. The agony of the Karluk crew drags on and on and on. . .

This true tale has it all: backstabbing, lying, stealing, racism, classism, murder, etc., etc. (Survivor loaded with nothing but Jerris would pale by comparison.) All manner of illness is included too. You've got your foaming at the mouth, insanity, starvation (in spades), freezing to death, drownings, food poisonings, frost bite galore, mystery illness, and toss in a few amputations (without any anesthesia of course) for good measure. Top that all off with the author actually purchasing a portion of the remains of a casualty of the disaster along with some of their gear on eBay 75 years after the fact and you have an intriguing tale indeed.

I plan to read The Last Voyage of the Karluk: A Survivor's Memoir of Arctic Disaster at some point. Thankfully, Niven emphasizes the accounts of others (especially Mamen's) so that McKinlay's account of the events won't be completely redundant.

Although I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone interested in adventure stories, I do have a couple of minor complaints. The pictures should be spaced throughout the book so that things aren't given away in advance, while at the same time allowing for an earlier glimpse of what the ship, original crew members, etc. look like as they are introduced. (For those of you who do look ahead to the pictures, but don't want to have things spoiled, I suggest not going beyond picture 18 until you reach the end of the book. I regretted having peaked ahead at the pictures as doing so dampened the surprises that were to come.) In a similar vein, the map on page 397 should actually be included at about page 195. When you come to page 195 put a bookmark at page 397 as you will refer to it often from that point on.

There is something strange and welcoming about the Arctic. There is a different kind of beauty there. I found myself wishing that I could actually take a short trip to god-forsaken Wrangel and Herald Islands, to see what they saw and imagine what they possibly experienced, if only for a day and a night--a clear night with a view of the stars, moon, and aura borealis like no other. Amazingly, one of the survivors went back to Wrangel Island after finally being rescued. (Spoiler alert! Skip the next two sentences if you plan to read Ada Blackjack.) Even though he escaped death time and time again on his first ordeal there, his return trip ended in death. You'd think he would have learned his lesson and not tempted fate, but in this incredible book nothing should be too surprising. I will remember it for a long time to come.

from the publisher:
It was to be the greatest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, with the largest scientific staff ever taken on such a journey. Its leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was celebrated for his studies of Eskimo life and, with this mission, hoped to find evidence that proved his staunchly held belief that there was a last unexplored continent, hidden beneath the vast polar ice cap. In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. Six weeks later, the arctic winter had begun, the ship was imprisoned in ice, and those on board had been abandoned by their leader.

For five months, the Karluk remained frozen in a massive block of ice, drifting farther and farther off course. In January 1914, with a thunderous impact, the ice tore a hole in the vessel's hull, and the redoubtable captain, Robert Bartlett, gave orders to abandon ship. With nothing but half the ship's store of supplies and the polar ice beneath their feet, Captain Bartlett, twenty-one men, an Inuit woman and her two small daughters, twenty-nine dogs, and one pet cat were now hopelessly shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land. These castaways had no choice but to try to find solid ground where they could wait while they struggled against starvation, snow blindness, a gruesome and mysterious disease, exposure to the brutal winter -- and each other. Bartlett and one member of the party soon set across the ice to seek help. Nine months later, twelve survivors were rescued by a small whaling schooner and brought back to civilization.

The Ice Master is an epic tale of true adventure that rivals the most dramatic fiction. Drawing on the diaries of those who were rescued and those who perished, and even an interview with one living survivor, Jennifer Niven re-creates with astonishing accuracy and immediacy the Karluk's ill-fated journey and her crew's desperate attempts to find a way home from the icy wastes of the Arctic.

Jennifer Niven, an award-winning screenwriter, was an associate producer at ABC Television in Los Angeles before she left to research and write The Ice Master, her first book.

"Not all the horrors of the Western Front, not the rubble of Arras, nor the hell of Ypres, nor all the mud of Flanders leading to Passchendale, could blot out the memories of that year in the Arctic." --William McKinlay, Karluck survivor
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