Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A peculiarly British obsession

I'll admit it - I'm not the most adventuresome person around. I like to be comfortable as opposed to doing things like snow camping with the Boy Scouts. Even my hobbies, like reading and gardening, aren't anything close to "living on the edge." About the nearest I come to doing something really adventurous is backpacking, which I've done the last two summers (but even then, my friend makes it relatively easy for the rest of us). Nonetheless, I can admire the great adventurers of history, like Lewis & Clark, who've set out into the unknown. But I don't need to copy their adventures - I'm perfectly content to read about them.

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest PassageIn The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage, Anthony Brandt tells a surprisingly interesting story of the British search for the Northwest Passage - a long-sought route to the Far East by going around the Americas to the north. While he briefly covers early efforts, the core of the book focuses on the first half of the 1800s and men like John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross (nephew to the elder Ross), and John Franklin - the man who literally ate his boots to avoid starvation.

"Risk is the essence of exploration" (pg 140), but the search turned out to be a fool's errand. Yes, there is a Northwest Passage (several, in fact), but it's frozen and impassable nearly year round and includes some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Ships became trapped in the ice that sometimes towered over them and men died of starvation, scurvy, and exposure to subzero temperatures (as much as 70 below) as well as the occasionally hostile local tribe. And yet the British saw this exploration as their duty and a matter of national pride, and persisted. It's unfortunate they didn't have enough humility to adopt some of the practices of the local Inuit tribes, who successfully live in such harsh conditions.

Brandt makes this period of history come alive with vivid descriptions of the elements, the explorers and the expeditions. He places the motivations in perspective, and makes it all more interesting than I had anticipated. The book is detailed and might be more information than some readers will want (nearly 400 fairly dense pages in the advance copy I received from Amazon Vine), and suffers from repetition sometimes but is highly readable. It started kind of slowly for me but really picked up, and I finished the last 60-70 pages at a run. It's the kind of book that can best be enjoyed from the seat of a nice comfortable chair, especially if you've got a plate of snacks handy that don't taste like shoe leather.

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