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a wretched and precarious situation

16 april 2017

I love books about Arctic exploration, but for some reason I haven't reviewed many of them here. I did write a little, ten years ago, about Per Olof Sundman's novel The Flight of the Eagle. But in recent years I've also read books about Elisha Kent Kane and Adolphus Greely, plus Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice (about the lethal voyage of the Jeannette in the 1880s). All these books, like David Welky's new Wretched and Precarious Situation, share a common feature: the expeditions they chronicle were pretty comprehensively disastrous. Reading about Robert Peary and Fridtjof Nansen can be fun, too, but their competence and success makes for a story that doesn't compel re-reading. The best kind of Arctic (or Antarctic) book is a ghastly story of an ill-advised adventure that came largely to grief. I even get a sense that the stories of failures had a prideful appeal for their occasional survivors. Peary was just a guy who went somewhere intrinsically nondescript, or perhaps didn't, and came home again. Greely was somebody who went somewhere, saw the gates of Hell open wide, and lived to tell the tale. Now that's interesting.

The leader of the group who saw Hell on the 1910s Crocker Land expedition was Donald MacMillan. Though much of Welky's narration is from MacMillan's perspective – leading you to assume he survived – you may not be wholly certain. Some books, including In the Kingdom of Ice, piece together narrations drawn from recovered journals, a necessary technique whether an explorer lived to write his memoirs or not. The Crocker Land expedition is obscure enough, over a century later, that A Wretched and Precarious Situation generates considerable suspense.

Welky's marshaling of an immense amount of complicated data – involving multiple smaller expeditions and relief missions all in motion at once over uncharted wastelands – is a very, very impressive expository feat. Not once did I lose the thread (and I am a notorious thread-loser). Background material is woven together with forward narrative, home lives balanced against Arctic ordeals. Sharply evocative photographs fill two sections of plates in the middle of the book. They are curiously contemporary-looking, possibly because they were candid shots, or, when posed, were taken of men who had completely run out of cares to give about their situation. They're among the most "real" of images I've seen of polar exploration.

I don't want to present spoilers, so my leeway to comment in detail about Welky's story is limited. I'll note instead that the Crocker Land adventure took place at a wretched and precarious moment for Arctic exploration. The poles had been reached just before (MacMillan was a member of Peary's support team in 1908-09). It wasn't that all the excitement of exploration was gone – huge territories remained unmapped – but a certain degree of competitiveness had evaporated.

And worse, the First World War broke out while MacMillan and his men were in the Arctic. Their sponsor, the American Museum of Natural History, had put elaborate thought into getting them to northern Greenland but very little into getting them back – in fact, since a wireless set they'd taken proved worthless, the AMNH had very little way of knowing if MacMillan and his men were still alive. Imagine being in the loneliest place on earth while everyone in the outside world had ceased to care that you were there.

Surface Arctic exploration shares features with manned space exploration. It will always have an appeal as long as there are people who like to push their personal limits. But the featurelessness and economic uselessness of these places make the efforts to reach them as absurd as they are awe-inspiring. I hope I haven't run out of Arctic histories to read.

Welky, David. A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In search of the last Arctic frontier. New York: Norton, 2017.