A Wretched and Precarious Situation|
In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier
W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, HC, 512 pp, $28.95
Last month we escaped from our freezing New England temperatures to the British Virgin Islands with the murder mystery, Sun, Sand and Murder. Well we are back to reality with the chilling travels in A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier. After reading this book, shoveling a driveway may seem like a very small feat.
"April 21, 1906. Navy Commander Robert E. Peary, the world's most famous explorer, had failed again." Our journey begins when Peary, having not reached the North Pole, is momentarily distracted by a mass of land or even a new continent he spies through his binoculars. He decides at once it must be left for another explorer, as he needs to regroup and focus on trying again for the Pole. Realizing that this failed attempt to the North Pole will perhaps imperil funding for a new trip, he ingratiates himself with one of his benefactors, banker George Croker, and it is called "Crocker Land".
The Crocker Land expedition was to be headed up by George Borup and Donald MacMillian, two young men who had helped Peary in his 1908 expedition to the Pole. During that trip they became close friends and MacMillian in particular had acquired "arctic fever", a deep desire to return and explore the unknown; perhaps to even find a new continent. Inspired by Peary, who MacMillian considered a father figure, they strove to find the resources to fund the expedition and were sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society.
Tragedy occurred when George Borup was killed in an unrelated kayak accident. Although both MacMillian and Borup were to lead the expedition, Edmund Hovey, the director of the American Museum of Natural History, had more faith in Borup's leadership and charisma. Finding his replacement was a necessary and difficult enterprise. They found Fitzhugh Green, from the United States Naval Academy. Another charismatic man, with experience on ships and a knack for knowing the right people to gather goods for the trip. Having assembled his team, MacMillian was on his way. More bad luck ensued when his vessel stranded on rocks off the coast of Labrador. After quickly hiring another ship and transferring their supplies MacMillian had proven himself to be a true leader. Green wrote "I frankly believe that the backers of the Expedition owe the value of our whole cargo to the remarkable faith in [MacMillian's] honesty that lives on the Labrador coast".
David Welky's research is extraordinary, taken from many resources but most intriguing were MacMillan's journals, housed at his alma mater Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Welky writes of the differing personalities, Harrison Hunt, the expedition surgeon also from Maine, who becomes increasingly homesick and disillusioned; Fitzhugh Green, who slowly sinks into madness and murder. As well as the members of the polar Inuit Tribe, who saved the Crocker Landers lives repeatedly. He delves deeply into MacMillian's intense attention to detail as well as his lack of insight into what is happening with his men psychologically.
MacMillian himself is at once pragmatic and romantic. The many travails he endures, including the discovery that Crocker Land did not exist would not hinder his love for the Arctic. During that discovery he wrote "I have done as well as I could and must be content". Although this may seem like a spoiler, it is not. The idea that Crocker Land is a myth is inherent from almost the beginning of the book.
The mystery of Crocker Land is questioned by the integrity of Robert Peary. Did he know that it could have been a fata morgana, an optical illusion which can occur when "temperature inversions refract, stretch, and invert an image to the point where it becomes unrecognizable."? It is a question Welky raises, with the fine point that Peary was an indisputable professional, and could easily have known better. However, his need for future funding could have impelled the idea forward in order to salvage what he could from his failed mission in 1906. But then again would he have sent his protégé on a wild goose chase?
MacMillian's adventures abound even after the discovery that Crocker Land was just a mirage. It took the explorers two additional years after the formal expedition ended to get home. The in depth and entertaining story telling make this a fascinating read. The descriptions of the Inuit life, the sled dogs, the igloos, the mystery and the Crocker Landers, make this an adventure story everyone should enjoy.