It's the kind of story that should be unreal, but it isn't.
In 1914 Ernest Shackleton set off on an expedition with 27 other men. Their goal: to cross Antarctica from one side to the other (known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition). Their ship was called the Endurance. It was supposed to take them through the Weddell Sea and land in Vahsal Bay where they would begin crossing the continent on foot.
But it never made it that far.
As it navigated the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, the Endurance became trapped in an ice pack. Unable to escape the floes, the crew wintered on the ship. They thought they would be able to get out in the spring, but the breaking up of the ice put extreme pressure on the ship and crushed her in October 1915.
Up to that point, I was interested in the story, but in a half-hearted sort of way. Mike (who read the book a couple of years ago) kept asking, "Where are you now?" only to be disappointed at my slow progress. He finally said, "I guess it's just not that interesting to you."
But with the loss of the Endurance, things picked up rapidly until I was the one badgering Mike about it and saying (over and over and over again), "This book is CRAZY! I cannot believe this ACTUALLY happened."
Shackleton and his men survive on an ice floe for several months until it literally disintegrates around them (one of the more harrowing moments occurs when a huge crack opens up right under one of the tents in the middle of the night, and they have to find and save one of the men from the frigid water), whereupon they begin to navigate the treacherous Antarctic waters in three small boats. They alternate between being wet and frozen, nearly die of thirst, and navigate the majority of the time in the dark. When they finally make it to the uninhabitable Elephant Island, six of them leave for South Georgia for a rescue ship while the remaining men stay on the island with only the barest of supplies.
The story mounts to an unbelievable climax. In fact, if the tale was fictional, I'm afraid I might have criticized the author for taking it a bit too far, leading the readers along to the last possible, the ultimate, second. But the whole thing is true, and instead of criticizing, I'm just awestruck. There was one point where Alfred Lansing tried to convey the futility of what Shackleton and two other men were about to attempt. He said, "Not one man had ever crossed the island for the simple reason that it could not be done." He wasn't being facetious; these men were literally attempting the impossible.
As I was listening to this book, I kept thinking, How is it possible that I am a member of the same species as these men? How is it possible that we are breathing the same oxygen or that the same blood is flowing through our veins? It is incredible how much they were physically able to endure, but even more than that, I couldn't believe how well they kept up their spirits through the long ordeal, which I think is a testament to Shackleton's amazing leadership.
For example, after they lost the Endurance, Alfred Lansing noted this:
They were castaways in one of the most savage regions in the world, drifting they knew not where, without a hope of rescue, subsisting only so long as providence sent them food to eat. And yet, they had adjusted with surprisingly little trouble to their new life, and most of them were quite sincerely happy. The adaptability of the human creature is such that they actually had to remind themselves on occasion of their desperate circumstances.One of the most tender moments for me was a scene that easily could have been left from the book. It was really rather inconsequential in the vast scope of the story, but I think it gives a glimpse into maybe why these men were able to survive with one another for so long. One day, Greenstreet (the cook) prepares their daily ration of warm milk. As he passes it around, his own portion gets spilled. He is devastated (when you have so little to look forward to, even such a small thing can be crushing). Instantly, several of the men pour a little of their own precious milk into his cup. That one scene really humanized the book for me--it not only showed that they were not immune to sadness and disappointment but also that they would band together to be kind and help out one another. Even though this particular moment had a real impact on me, Lansing filled the book with many similar examples.
I honestly can't praise Alfred Lansing's writing enough. The book was published in 1959, but it reads with all the gripping realism we've come to expect from more recent books like Unbroken. After finishing, I was so disappointed to find out that he didn't write any other books during his lifetime. One of my very favorite lines came after Shackleton and two of his companions slide down a mountain. He said,
"They were breathless and their hearts were beating wildly, but they found themselves laughing uncontrollably. What had been a terrifying prospect, possibly a hundred seconds before, had turned into a breathtaking triumph. They looked up against the darkening sky and saw the fog curling over the edge of the ridges, perhaps two thousand feet above them, and they felt that special kind of pride of a person who, in a foolish moment, accepts an impossible dare and then pulls it off to perfection."I listened to the audio version of the book, and Simon Prebble carried out Lansing's words brilliantly. His voice rose and fell with the intensity of the situation (and there were times when I thought he couldn't possibly get any more animated, but I was wrong). He made each of the characters come alive with different and distinct voices. In short, he was the perfect narrator for this story.
I fully intend on buying our family our own copy of this book. Even though my oldest child is only six years old, I've already started collecting ideas for when he is in middle school or high school and looking for new reading material. This is one book I want to have readily available and on our shelf. It is exciting and intense without being dark or disturbing. (I keep wanting to compare it to Unbroken, but where I wouldn't feel comfortable with a 13-year-old reading that, I would be completely okay with a 13-year-old reading this. Man vs. nature is infinitely easier to read about than man vs. man.) With a home full of boys, I have a feeling our copy will be quite battered and bruised in ten years.
Early in the book, Alfred Lansing quotes this praise: "For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you're in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." Now that I've read this story, I can see why someone would say such a thing. Although not a perfect person by any means, Shackleton knew how to keep up morale and how to make impossible decisions. It was an unbelievable, but very inspiring, story.
(Oh, and if you're feeling a little down about January, this book does wonders with helping you see you actually don't have it so bad.)