Book Review: Endurance

In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 set off on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on the ship Endurance, intending to cross the continent of Antarctica via the pole. They reached the Weddell Sea and their ship became encased in pack ice and over the duration of the Antarctic winter, slowly crushed. At one point in this process, Shackleton and his crew abandoned ship, got as many supplies as they could (including their diaries) and set up camp on a thick ice floe. And that’s just the start of the story, because you can’t stay put on a floe in the Weddle Sea, can you? You have to somehow get home and if you’re an expedition leader, you have to get everyone you signed up to go with you not just home, but preferably as unscathed as possible. But how do you go from a floe near the south pole to the whaling station at South Georgia, the nearest human habitation and do so when surrounded by pack ice, an unruly ocean and really unpredictable weather?

I had an awareness of this exhibition, but didn’t really know much about it. Last week, as I was rummaging through my audio books, trying to figure out what I wanted to read next, I came upon Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, narrated by Simon Prebble. At the time, it was somewhere in the 40s with the humidex (about 104F) and it seemed a good antidote. I was poking about on Amazon and accidentally saw a description of how everything turned out and I’m about post spoilers, so if you are vague on the details and want to be surprised, stop reading this review now, go get the book - I can highly recommend the audio version – and I’ll see you on Wednesday.

Are you sure?

And I’m so glad I accidentally read that spoiler and found out that everything turns out well, because if I hadn’t, I’d have bitten my nails to the quick and stayed up at night worrying about everyone.

The book is written based on the crew’s diaries and logs, which sounds as if it might be a bit repetitious and dry, but nothing could be further from the truth. It reads like a thrilling piece of fiction, Lansing managing to tell the story interspersed with quotes from the different diaries in a completely natural way that just flows from one moment to the next. You hear about life on the ship and the ice floe, stuck in the middle of the Antarctic winter for eight months, what the weather was like, what they ate, how they entertained themselves and Lansing makes it come alive. The details are incredible and it made me miss the tradition of writing a diary and wonder how future writers and historians will re-create our times - from blogs? It can’t possibly be the same. Anyway, back on track… The detail also brought a couple moments of wondering who put together the list of supplies for the expedition, as they included a woman’s red party dress (used for dress-up in a Christmas variety show) and a bicycle. Who brings a bicycle on an Antarctic expedition??

If this book was a piece of fiction, I would have rolled my eyes and tossed it across the room. Never have I read a piece of writing in which the characters over and over again are put in horrendously perilous situations and just as things calm down and they relax, danger arrives again. If it was fiction, you’d laugh at it, but it’s not - it really happened this way. And because of the detailed diaries and Lansing’s talent at pulling it all together into an incredibly readable story, you begin to realize why this era was called the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, because bravery or insanity is the only explanation I can come up with for going on a trip like this. What these men went through made chills go up my spine and I sat in awestruck, jaw-dropping admiration at how they kept going and kept going and kept going for 17 months of what I would call absolute horror. And somehow stayed civilized. When the book ended, I wanted very much to know what happens afterwards to these people I had come to know and care about – would they go home and spend the rest of their lives sitting by the fire, surrounded by food or would they go back? And thanks to Wikipedia, I know that many of them went back. Brave or nuts? Hard to tell.

As usual, Simon Prebble does a wonderful job narrating this book, effortlessly bringing individual character and voice to the different members of the crew and performing this piece of writing brilliantly. He brings the story to life, enhancing the tension, the desperation and blends his talent with the talent of the author in such a way that they pull you into the story, not letting go until the very end.

This one’s a keeper and I know I’ll be reading it again. Go get it. But be prepared to lose sleep when you can’t put it down.


Laurie Grassi said…
Thanks for sharing this, Lene. I haven't read the book, but saw a movie with Kenneth Branagh that was just amazing. I can't imagine going through what they went through and coming out the other end, sanity intact. Gives one hope, doesn't it?? L
AlisonH said…
W O W.

My husband and I knew someone whose light plane had crashed in Alaska, killing his brother and brother's wife (he adopted their eight children afterwards) and he and the other survivor walked for two weeks through the snow to get help while dressed lightly for a short plane hop. A Hershey bar inexplicably found in the snow gave them incredible energy at the point of starvation.

That's the make-you-shiver story we grew up with. But this book sounds like--wow!!!
k said…
Do you ever read Kim Stanley Robinson? He's got a story/ book where one of the people has to re-enact Shackleton's descent.And eco stuff, and love, and all kinds of things going on. I always get lost in his books.

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