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A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier
     

A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier

by David Welky
 

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A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2016
A remarkable true story of adventure, betrayal, and survival set in one of the world’s most inhospitable places.In 1906, from atop a snow-swept hill in the ice fields northwest of Greenland, hundreds of miles from another human being, Commander Robert E. Peary spotted a line of mysterious peaks looming in the

Overview

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2016
A remarkable true story of adventure, betrayal, and survival set in one of the world’s most inhospitable places.In 1906, from atop a snow-swept hill in the ice fields northwest of Greenland, hundreds of miles from another human being, Commander Robert E. Peary spotted a line of mysterious peaks looming in the distance. He called this unexplored realm “Crocker Land.” Scientists and explorers agreed that the world-famous explorer had discovered a new continent rising from the frozen Arctic Ocean.Several years later, two of Peary’s disciples, George Borup and Donald MacMillan, assembled a team of amateur adventurers to investigate Crocker Land. Before them lay a chance at the kind of lasting fame enjoyed by Magellan, Columbus, and Captain Cook. While filling in the last blank space on the globe, they might find new species of plants or animals, or even men; in the era of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, anything seemed possible. Renowned scientific institutions, and even former president Theodore Roosevelt, rushed to endorse the expedition.What followed was a sequence of events that none of the explorers could have imagined. Trapped in a true-life adventure story, the men endured howling blizzards, unearthly cold, food shortages, isolation, a fatal boating accident, a drunken sea captain, disease, dissension, and a horrific crime. But the team pushed on through every obstacle, driven forward by the mystery of Crocker Land and faint hopes that they someday would make it home.Populated with a cast of memorable characters, and based on years of research in previously untapped sources, A Wretched and Precarious Situation is a harrowing Arctic narrative unlike any other.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/31/2016
Life in the extreme north was a hellish ordeal for early 20th-century American and Inuit explorers, as described in this exciting adventure saga. Historian Welky (The Thousand-Year Flood) recounts the 1913 expedition to find “Crocker Land,” a possible continent in the Arctic Ocean that was glimpsed by Robert Peary during an earlier failed attempt on the North Pole. The trek took the explorers to Greenland and then hundreds of miles west across rugged Ellesmere Island and onto the frozen sea. Drawing on extensive expedition diaries, Welky’s absorbing narrative highlights the perils of polar travel, including ice that piled up in impassable ridges or broke beneath one’s feet, fractious sled-dogs, lethal weather, frostbite, disease, starvation, and exhaustion. It’s also a vivid account of the culture clash between grandiose Americans and the pragmatic Inuit communities they relied on for survival, and an absorbing study of how humans warp under pressure: the men on one sled-trip that ran into a blizzard descended into madness and murder, and expedition members stuck in a cabin during months-long winter darkness—thanks to unlucky weather that iced in rescue ships and marooned the Americans in Greenland for four years—picked mercilessly at one another. This is a classic explorer’s narrative, pitting ambition against the limits of endurance. Photos. (Nov.)
Starred review - Booklist
“Welky’s well-judged and well-written revival of this obscure expedition augurs to be as popular as any in the polar-exploration genre.”
Nature
“David Welky reveals in this engrossing account....the classic litany of illness, privation and howling blizzards, [and] a singularly bizarre finding about [polar explorer Robert] Peary's original sighting.”
New York Times Book Review
“Polar historians…will be grateful to have the Crocker Land expedition properly documented.”
Bill Streever - Dallas Morning News
“What a book!....Excellent writing that combines some of the serious novelist’s techniques with information that can only come from hundreds of hours with long-forgotten diaries, letters and newspaper accounts....Comparable but better-known authors in the genre include David McCullough, John Barry and Timothy Egan.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Welky’s well-judged and well-written revival of this obscure expedition augurs to be as popular as any in the polar-exploration genre.”
The Arctic Book Review
“Welky is a superb writer, and he mines the interpersonal relationships of the expedition’s participants – the loyalties, the friendships grown or torn asunder, the cultural insensitivities – as effectively as he describes the travel, the exploration into unknown territory, and the constant flirtation with death at the hands of the elements.”
Simon Worrall - National Geographic
“Unravels the strange story of one of the world’s greatest discoveries that never was.”
Library Journal
10/15/2016
The island of Crocker Land was allegedly first "sighted" by American explorer Robert Peary during his 1906 North Pole attempt. On Peary's 1908 expedition, he met fellow explorers Donald MacMillan and George Borup, who were both bitten hard by the Arctic bug. MacMillan and Borup planned an expedition to map Crocker Land, but funding issues and Borup's death delayed its start until 1913. By 1914, MacMillan and his team of Polar Inuit guides determined that Crocker Land was just a fata morgana (mirage). Welky (history, Univ. of Central Arkansas; The Thousand-Year Flood) describes how efforts to return the expedition to New York were thwarted for three years by weather, sea ice, inadequate ships owing to the start of World War I, and funding issues. E.O. Hovey, curator of the American Museum of Natural History (the expedition's sponsor), went to the Greenland base in 1915. The title comes from one of Hovey's journals after an "easy" one-day trip stretched into its fourth day. Welky provides an evenhanded and thoroughly researched portrayal of team leader and explorer MacMillan. VERDICT This book fills in a significant and often overlooked piece of the Arctic exploration puzzle. Arctic enthusiasts, armchair adventures, and dreamers of lost worlds will find much to appreciate.—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Univ. of Evansville Lib., IN
Kirkus Review
★ Sept. 8, 2016
The story of a 1913 Arctic expedition to investigate what the New York Tribune called “the last considerable mass of unknown land on our planet.”Welky (History/Univ. of Central Arkansas; Marching Across the Color Line: A. Philip Randolph and Civil Rights in the World War II Era, 2013, etc.) recounts the effort by two eager young acolytes of Cmdr. Robert E. Peary to reveal the secrets of Crocker Land, a large, undiscovered landmass the famed explorer reported seeing on his failed 1906 attempt to reach the North Pole. Making magnificent use of documents and re-creating the yearslong Arctic sojourn with the drama and immediacy of a tension-filled adventure novel, the author conjures a romantic quest emblematic of the rugged manliness of the time. In the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and with Peary’s blessing and the sponsorship of the American Museum of Natural History, the young explorers—Bowdoin graduate Donald MacMillan and Yalie George Borup—set out on a steamer with all the fanfare due an ambitious scientific exploration. Their journey, pitting a seven-man crew against the perils of Arctic life, from blizzards and ice floes to winter darkness and loneliness, involved “triumph, frustration, joy, infighting, betrayal, and murder” in “one of the harshest environments on the planet.” Working with such material and telling his story in vivid scenes rendered in wonderfully sharp declarative sentences, Welky offers a vibrant portrait of the young adventurers, their loyal Inuit helpers, and the ever present dangers of a forbidding place where, as leader MacMillan said, “the evil spirit of the Arctic is always watching.” Examining every aspect of the mission and its historical context, the author captures the can-do, all-American-boy spirit of the age, the constant fears of unforeseen disasters on the ice, and the fossil- and specimen-collecting mania that drove so much exploration. He also describes the expedition’s surprising discovery upon approaching Crocker Land in a way that enhances the fascination of his story. Long, leisurely, and vastly entertaining.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393254419
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
11/01/2016
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
107,355
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

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Meet the Author

David Welky is the author of The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937, The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, and other books. He is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas.

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