Wednesday, December 3, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Hampton Sides

Category: Nonfiction: Biography; History; Adventure 

Synopsis: A recount of the 1879 North Pole expedition led by Captain George Washington De Long and his crew.

Date finished: 15 September 2014

Rating: *****

I fear I’ve waited too long to write this review, and that is honestly one of my greatest reading regrets this year. Because you need to read this book, and a good, intelligent, well-reasoned review would have sold you on it. (Does anyone else put that kind of pressure on their book reviews? No wonder I have writer’s block!) Truly, this is one of my top five books of the year, maybe even top three.

Let’s start with the subject. Arctic expedition is not something I knew anything about before this book. I’d never heard of the USS Jeannette, Captain George Washington De Long, or even considered how we got to know our North (or South) Pole. But give me a well-written book on any subject, and I’ll eat it up.

Prior to Captain De Long and his crew, there had been many failed attempts at polar exploration. Many explorers wanted to be the first to the top of the world. Most didn’t survive. There were theories about the North Pole that would persist until De Long and his crew, as well as subsequent crews, proved them wrong. Chief among them was that there was an “Open Polar Sea,” that the Arctic ice barrier was simply a ring that if penetrated would lead you to an open body of water at the pole. Indeed, maps and globes of this era showed this Polar Sea. But penetrating that Arctic ring of ice was impossible in those days. Most every crew who braved the boat-crushing ice sheets faced the same fate: they couldn’t get past the 80th parallel.

The USS Jeannette was fortified like no other polar exploration vessel before her. She was loaded with 33 (?) men and thousands of pounds of provisions including 2,500 lbs. of roast mutton, 3,000 lbs. of stewed and corned beef, 3,000 lbs. of salt pork, 100 lbs. of tongue…and Budweiser beer. Men took on the voyage not knowing if they would see their wives and families again.

The writing of this expedition was beyond compare. Some passages were so lyrical they brought tears to my eyes. And the landscape was described so well, I really felt like I was seeing it. I watched a book talk with Hampton Sides after I’d finished the book (husband points to hubby for seeing it and recording it for me!), in which he said he’d followed De Long’s path so that he would have the visual and visceral feeling of the place. This is obviously a man who puts himself into his work.

I won’t give you spoilers here, but the book’s subtitle gives you some hint as to what to expect. Suffice it to say, it’s a riveting account, and I can’t imagine this not becoming a Hollywood blockbuster in a few years. It’s best to go into the book, I think, without much knowledge of what’s going to happen, because that experience will most closely mirror the crew’s experience.

In addition to a great story and superb writing, there’s good historical context, character development (the crew kept outstanding journals and guarded them at all costs, and at times, great peril), flawless plotting, humor, and spellbinding “plot” twists.

I’m a Hampton Sides fan for life with this book. I hope you’ll try it. 

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And yes.

You might also enjoy:
This may sound funny, but I kept thinking about Seabiscuit (another of my top five favorite reads of the year) while reading this book. While about vastly different subjects, the sea voyage and the champion racehorse winning his matches, are both spirited tales about humanity, perseverance, and accomplishing great things against greater odds. And the writing in both is unparalleled.


  1. Argh I've been eyeing this book for a while and it's going to be even harder to resist now that you have written this review! :)

    1. I hope you like it. I really did find it spellbinding and superb. A great winter tale!

  2. I've read other reviews on this book too. It seems a universal favorite. I love adventure tales, and real-life ones are even better. Another one to add to my TBR list, it seems.

  3. I would never have expected to enjoy a book about a doomed polar expedition, but this was FANTASTIC. I too would love to read more from Hampton Sides, an excellent writer.

    1. My sentiments exactly.

      He has a new one coming out in March about the Lusitania. I'm really looking forward to that!