THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

In the fall of 2006, I drove from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico and walked into the Kit Carson Home and Museum. When I entered I spotted an individual sitting behind one table while another nearby table held a stack of books. It was obvious that he was a writer promoting a book.

Taos, which hosts a number of festivals and celebrations every year, can be a busy little village at times, but not that day. There wasn’t much going on. In fact, there were only two other visitors besides me in the museum and they were indicating no interest in the book. More out of a sense of compassion than anything else, I walked over to the table containing the books, and when I looked at the cover I immediately recognized the author’s name. It was Hampton Sides.

I recognized his name because I had just recently read one of his other books. Ghost Soldiers, published in 2001, the story of a successful World War II mission to liberate over five hundred POW's being held in the Philippines, including the last survivors of the Bataan Death March, was a well-told tale of heroism.

I thought Ghost Soldiers was an excellent book about a little known, but extraordinary event and this new book, Blood and Thunder, really aroused my curiosity, too. It is the story of a controversial chapter in the life of Kit Carson. Most people know that he was a mountain man, trapper, explorer and scout, but few know that he was a union officer during the Civil War, and that in that position he played a major role in the brutal subjugation and repression of the Navajos. 

So, what more appropriate place to promote a book about Kit Carson than in the Kit Carson Home and Museum? Appropriate, yes; successful, no.

Naturally, I purchased a copy, not out of compassion, but because I was hooked by the subject matter. Because nobody else was taking up any of his time, I not only had a signed first edition, but I was able to hold a rather lengthy conversation with him, in which I was able to tell him how much I had admired his earlier book. I found out that he was a native of Memphis, Tennessee and that he lived in Santa Fe, which is not all that far from Taos. It turned out to be a good day for me, but I'm afraid not a profitable one for him.

Well, you may know that the critics praised Blood and Thunder to high heaven and that the book became a best seller, and that a film adaptation is even in the works.

In 2010, Hellhound on His Trail was another critical and popular success. The subtitle tells the tale: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.  And it too may become a film.

It goes without saying that a lot of readers besides me have discovered Hampton Sides. The critical acclaim for all three has been, as far as I can tell, almost universal.

What could he possibly write that would top his other books? Well, how about writing about an arctic expedition that nobody remembers? Not a good idea? But how many people knew about that WWII rescue mission or Kit Carson's Civil War experiences?

The result is In the Kingdom of Ice and I think it is as good, and in some respects even better, than his other work. The subtitle tells us much about this book, too: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette. It is the story of George Washington DeLong’s attempt in 1879 to sail his ship and its crew to the North Pole. The expedition was based on the faulty notion that if a ship could break through the ice barrier that it would sail into an open polar sea. Unfortunately, after only two months the ship, the three-masted and steam-powered Jeannette, became entrapped in ice at the 72nd parallel and remained confined for two years, drifting with the ice pack. 

What follows is a harrowing tale of gritty and desperate determination by the crew of thirty-three to survive and return home despite the fact that they were a thousand miles from the nearest land.

Because I don’t want to ruin the story for others, I choose not to reveal what happened thereafter.

Sides’ great strength is that he is not only a thorough researcher and talented writer, but that he also knows how to tell a story. He graduated college with a degree in American history, but his background is in magazine journalism. Thus, he is an historian who became a journalist, rather than the other way around, which is more often the case. He is editor at large for Outdoor magazine and has written for various other publications including National Geographic and The New Yorker.

His work reminds me of that of three other writers whose admirable storytelling skills are such that they are able to write nonfiction that reads like a novel. Those three are Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger, and Nathaniel Philbrick. I once thought that Sides might someday rank with those writers, but I now think that with his latest book he has surpassed them.

Hampton Sides

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