Review: MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton (2021)

Genre: Adult Historical Nonfiction
Year Release: 2021
Source: Libro.fm

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Starvation, scurvy, depictions of mental illness, animal slaughter

If you thought Arctic exploration had its moments of “why would anyone ever do this,” Antarctic exploration is on a whole other level. This book follows the expedition of The Belgica, a ship from Belgium with a mostly international crew. What makes this account particularly captivating is its wacky cast of characters and a trip that felt mad long before Adrien de Gerlarche and his crew made it to the southern seas.

Told fairly linearly in multiple points of view, the ending really has you wondering just what such journeys do to people, especially when there’s national and international renown at stake.

What really makes this journey is the smallness of its crew. On Terror and Erebus, there were one hundred and thirty ish people on board. On this journey, there were eighteen. Imagine being stuck on a boat for a half-year winter on an uncertain ice pack with seventeen other people, only a handful of which share a language. The fact that anything got done and that the entire expedition didn’t end in tragedy is nothing short of a miracle.

Sancton spends a lot of time focusing on three central figures: de Gerlache, Roald Amundsen, and Frederick Cook. The fact that de Gerlache embarked on a sea journey without knowing how to swim kind of tells you everything you need to know about the man. I am also a sucker for historical figures in love with their homeland, and whew, does that cause some tension here. Especially with Amundsen, a budding explorer in deep admiration of John Franklin and eventual protege of Cook. You might remember Cook from my review of True North. He’s the token American on the trip, on a quest for personal validation after some personal tragedies and his own harrowing trip in the Arctic north.

Though these three survive their Antarctic foray doesn’t mean that they come out of it unscathed. The parallels drawn here about loneliness and the accidental discovery of Seasonal Affective Disorder are one thing. It’s a whole other when considering what failure can do to a person. Though they returned to their respective countries, they didn’t reach either the magnetic pole or the geographic pole in the South. In that sense it’s a tragedy, but my god, is the story of their attempts to break free from the ice and survive impossible conditions riveting.

Another exciting, mind-boggling, and head-clutching adventuring in frozen lands where there is a reason no one goes there for giggles.

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