In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides; Doubleday (480 pages, $28.95). “In the Kingdom of Ice” tells the story of an almost entirely forgotten episode that unfolded at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Three centuries after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci lent his name to a mysterious land mass in the Western Hemisphere, the United States of America sent off its own expedition to the North Pole. The men of the USS Jeannette hope for glory and fame. Instead, they discover an ice-bound Heart of Darkness.
Many people had died exploring the Arctic, but DeLong had no trouble finding men to join him. The last great American adventure – the Civil War – was quickly fading into memory.
Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and assorted other American entrepreneurs and inventors provided DeLong with the latest products of American technological innovation. The Navy was a second-rate force on the world scene, but if American sailors discovered the North Pole, it would confirm the country’s ascendancy. It’s when the USS Jeannette (named for the newspaper baron’s sister) finally sets sail from San Francisco that Sides’ book comes most fully to life as a pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre Arctic backdrop.