Genre: Adult Historical Nonfiction
Year Release: 2022
Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Starvation, depictions of mental illness, period-accurate slur against Inuit and northern indigenous people (explained, but present), animal slaughter, alleged death by suicide, dog on dog violence & cannibalism, corpses, graphic depictions of surgery & infection
Levy returns again with an incredible account of several boats and two dozen people trapped in and around the Arctic circle. Anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson organized a scientific and geographical expedition to the Arctic on The Karluk, a ship vastly unprepared for Arctic sea ice and manned by a crew composed largely of scientists with little experience in that treacherous territory. It goes well, with Stefansson abandoning ship to go on a caribou hunt and leaving everyone else in the charge of its captain, Robert Bartlett. Death, mental illness, desperation, and long, long treks across ice pack into Russia around the onset of World War One ensure.
If you enjoyed Labyrinth of Ice, you are in for a treat with incredible characterization and a reverence for the snow and ice many have tried to traverse in previous expeditions, you’re in for a treat. The audiobook does come with supplemental materials like photographs, a timeline, and additional reading.
A note on the content warnings related to animals: if you like cats, there is a cat who survives and lives for several years after the Canadian Arctic Expedition. If you like dogs, however, you might want to skip this one as many do not survive and Levy does not shirk away from descriptions.
This is the tale of essentially two crews, the one that stayed behind and the other went on a caribou hunt. Were the caribou? Debatable, still. Same goes for the alleged suicide of one of the members. But Levy saves the speculation and attribution of motives for once the final fates of the crews are decided. During the events of the expedition, he really focuses on attitudes as recorded in personal diaries and the play-by-play with some of the most beautiful imagery of the harsh icy wastelands I’ve ever read. The allure of such explorations and expeditions is clear. The harshness of that reality is not avoided, and the details can be hard to get through sometimes.
I think what impresses me most about this book is how geographically easily it was to follow. Yes, the appendix that came with the audiobook has a map, but I didn’t discover that until finishing the read. The distances are incredible, and the fact that people traveled and survived the ordeal is equally impressive. There is a good amount of human hubris to be found here, especially when it comes to the details of planning the expedition. Between this one and the Donner Party, make sure you leave your point of origin on time with the correct materials.
The human element of this book is so good and is ultimately what kept me strapped in for yet another disastrous trek through the Arctic Circle. There’s camaraderie, there’s great upset, there’s harrowing escapes and ceaseless winter. With greater historical contexts like the outbreak of World War I being one of the things that greeted the seamen upon their return home, this account leaves few stones unturned and offers a comprehensive bibliography for those wanting to keep reading and researching.