The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Jacket-4• Grade Range: high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Caroline Alexander
• The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
• Publisher: New York, Knopf
• 1998
• 214 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: The ALEX Award
• Author’s website: The author does not appear to have a website.

There is implicit romance and drama in Antarctic exploration and Shackleton’s 1914-17 Expedition may be the most epic of all. Attempting to be the first to cross the continent on foot, their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the ice. They survived for more than a year marooned on drifting floes, their position impossible and their ordeal only beginning. A desperate bid for rescue involved sailing a 22ft. boat across 850 miles of the most dangerous sea in the world, in winter, in the dark, during a hurricane and then crossing uncharted mountains to reach rescue. Inconceivably they succeeded; their story, accompanied by astonishing, previously unpublished photographs, makes exciting reading.

Alexander writes in clear, elegant, lucid prose. Her admiration for the explorers comes through, but importantly so does a sense of perspective. Too many authors writing on the age of heroic exploration exalt their subjects for their suffering; in her first chapter: on the heroic age, Alexander makes clear suffering was often the result of incompetent planning or vainglorious miscalculation. This frankness establishes trust in her perspective and helps frame her account of Shackleton’s exemplary leadership. He was a leader who put his men first.

Much of Alexander’s account is based on journals kept by the crew. This allows for lots of first hand descriptions which Alexander supplements with background information: the reader gets to know the personalities and foibles of the 27 men, dozens of dogs and one cat. Accompanied by hundreds of incredible photographs the pairing of the words and images provide a powerful and intimate sense of both the personalities and the conditions they endured.

The book succeeds both as an amazing and harrowing adventure story and as an account of a remarkable example of leadership. The real triumph was not over the elements, but of a mastery of human character. They did not merely endure, they “exhibited the grace of expertise under ungodly pressure.” “Optimism, “ Shackleton once said, “is true moral courage.” It is this spirit, which animated many of the men, which makes the account far from dour. Faced with an impossible decent and on the verge of freezing to death, the overland rescue team slid down a mountain: “ Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and knew that I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it…I yelled with excitement and found Shackleton and Crean were yelling too.” Stuck subsisting under two overturned dories, the men marooned on Elephant Island continued to joke, spin yarns and grew most tired, not of the privation, but of the necessity of killing every animal that landed on their barren island.

Alexander makes the compelling case that Shackleton’s greatness lay in his “conviction that quite ordinary individuals were capable of heroic feats if the circumstances required; the weak and the strong could and must survive together.” During his lifetime his fame was eclipsed by that of the more tragic explorer Scott, but Shackleton’s fame has grown and endured. In her final chapter Alexander tells the fates of many of the expedition, some who didn’t survive the Great War and some who lived to see a man walk on the moon.

Front matter: includes several photographs of the crew and their ship, a dedication to, and photo of, the ship’s mascot: the cat Mrs. Chippy, a photo of the rescue and a map of the journey. Back matter includes several pages of very informative acknowledgments that indicate the depth and scope of Alexander’s research while annotating many of the primary sources, many of which are unpublished. A paragraph describes sources and offers an annotated and selected bibliography for further reading. A note on photographs goes into detail about the processing of and history of the images. An image of the photographer, Hurley, filming from the mast, a brief note about the author and a note on the type conclude the book. There are no contents and no index, which make finding specific passages and images difficult.

This book was published in association with the American Museum of Natural History and its 1999 exhibit, curated by Alexander, which chronicled Shackleton’s voyage.

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