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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

4.5 24
by Jennifer Niven

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From the author of The Ice Master comes the remarkable true story of a young Inuit woman who survived six months alone on a desolate, uninhabited Arctic island

In September 1921, four young men and Ada Blackjack, a diminutive 25-year-old Eskimo woman, ventured deep into the Arctic in a secret attempt to colonize desolate Wrangel Island for Great


From the author of The Ice Master comes the remarkable true story of a young Inuit woman who survived six months alone on a desolate, uninhabited Arctic island

In September 1921, four young men and Ada Blackjack, a diminutive 25-year-old Eskimo woman, ventured deep into the Arctic in a secret attempt to colonize desolate Wrangel Island for Great Britain. Two years later, Ada Blackjack emerged as the sole survivor of this ambitious polar expedition. This young, unskilled woman--who had headed to the Arctic in search of money and a husband--conquered the seemingly unconquerable north and survived all alone after her male companions had perished.

Following her triumphant return to civilization, the international press proclaimed her the female Robinson Crusoe. But whatever stories the press turned out came from the imaginations of reporters: Ada Blackjack refused to speak to anyone about her horrific two years in the Arctic. Only on one occasion--after charges were published falsely accusing her of causing the death of one her companions--did she speak up for herself.

Jennifer Niven has created an absorbing, compelling history of this remarkable woman, taking full advantage of the wealth of first-hand resources about Ada that exist, including her never-before-seen diaries, the unpublished diaries from other primary characters, and interviews with Ada's surviving son. Ada Blackjack is more than a rugged tale of a woman battling the elements to survive in the frozen north--it is the story of a hero.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Niven convincingly shows Blackjack is every inch a hero, the book succeeds as a sure-footed novelization of her forgotten story.
Library Journal
A solid and suspenseful tale around the framework of records and diaries to reveal an obscure woman’s accidental heroism.
Donna Marchetti
A woman who deserved a place in history.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Washington Post
Niven convincingly shows that Blackjack is every inch a folk hero, and the book succeeds as a sure-footed novelization of her forgotten story, spiked with occasional references to original sources -- including her diary -- that Niven recovered. An extensive fifth section of the book takes on another project: how Blackjack's story played. As Niven makes her way through the fog of bad press -- at one point a New York paper accused Blackjack of murder -- she becomes less narrator than critic, and Ada Blackjack evolves from an engrossing fireside yarn to an equally engrossing parsing of legal and media machinations. — Brad Wieners
Publishers Weekly
The beauty of Niven's tale (after The Ice Master) reveals itself slowly, in hard-to-find bits and pieces, mirroring the piecemeal dawning of dread that blanketed the book's five protagonists one winter in 1923 on a bleak Arctic island. The explorers four young white men from the U.S. and Canada and Ada, a 23-year-old Inuit woman set out under a Canadian flag to claim a barren rock in the tundra north of the new Soviet Union for the British Empire. But with a lack of proper funding; a grandstanding, do-nothing Svengali of a leader; and an inexperienced crew, the mission was doomed from the start. Niven's hero is the slight, shy Blackjack, who, though neither as worldly wise as her companions nor as self-sufficient, learns to take care of herself and a dying member of her party after the team is trapped by ice for almost two years and the three others decide to cross the frozen ocean and make for Siberia, never to be seen again. By trapping foxes, hunting seals and dodging polar bears, Blackjack fights for her life and for the future of her ailing son, whom she left back home in Alaska, and for whose health-care expenses she agreed to take the trip. When she returns home as the only survivor, the ignoble jockeying for her attention and money by the press, her rescuer and the disreputable mission chief (who sat out the trip) melds with the clamor of city life (in Seattle and San Francisco), leaving both the reader and Blackjack near-nostalgic for the creaking ice floes and the slow rhythms of life in the northern frozen wastelands. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, John Ware. (Nov. 12) Forecast: Niven's previous book was named one of Entertainment Weekly's Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year 2000 and was featured in documentaries on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel. A radio interview campaign and national print ads should help her second book receive widespread attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The grim tale of an Arctic expedition that had "doomed" stamped on it from the start, told (at times over-told) by Niven (The Ice Master, not reviewed). "She was a young and unskilled woman who headed into the Arctic in search of money and a husband," Niven writes of Ada Blackjack. What Blackjack hadn’t bargained on, and what gives Niven’s story what zing it has, is that famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had decided, without any authority, that Wrangel Island ought to be a British possession and that "any claim that might have belonged to the Russians or the Americans had lapsed." The island would make a nifty air base, a possible radio and meteorological station, and be helpful in nipping Japanese imperial aspirations. Stefansson put together the expedition with four men and Blackjack—the team’s seamstress—and intimated that he, too, would be among the explorers, though he had no intention of traveling with the group. The team soon found that Wrangel was an acquired taste: gloomy, rocky, cloudy, stormy, icy, and damn cold. When things started getting difficult (Niven suggests that the unpredictable Blackjack was suffering from "Arctic Hysteria") and the supply ship failed to materialize—Stefansson had run out of money—three of the men struck out for Nome, leaving Blackjack with the remaining scurvy-ruined member. Two years later, Blackjack alone met the rescue party—heroic, and yet Niven fails to lift Blackjack’s achievement out of the tedium of days: gathering wood, hunting, caring for a man who took a long time to die. There’s little transport in the details—"On April 24, she washed her hair"—and the resulting brouhaha over the expedition’sdiaries serves only to highlight the tawdriness of the affair. The hard challenge that defeats Niven: making an exciting story when morbidity and cheap behavior are the main ingredients. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen) Agent: John Ware

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Read an Excerpt

Ada pushed open the tent flaps and searched for Knight. He had gone out some time ago to chop wood, and should have been back by now. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had left them just one week before and Ada was still anxious about being left alone.

Suddenly she saw him, several feet away, lying on the ground, limp and still. Ada felt her heart rise into her throat as she took a step forward. Knight couldn't be dead. If he were dead she would be all alone, and then who would care for her? She took another step and another until she was standing over him, looking into his pale, gaunt face.

Thank God, he was breathing. She knelt over him and tried to wake him. It took a good five minutes -- or so it seemed to Ada -- but finally he stirred, the life coming back into him. He woke to see her anxious face, pinched and strained, peering down at him.

"I'm all right now, Ada." His speech was halting, his voice soft, but he wanted to reassure her because he could tell she was terrified. "I just felt a little faint."

Confused and frightened, Ada pulled him to his feet. He leaned heavily on her as she helped him into the tent and once there, utterly spent, he crumpled into a pile on his bed. He began to talk to her then, telling her for the first time how ill he was. It was scurvy, as far as he could tell, and it seemed to be getting worse. He had tried to keep it from the others, but Crawford knew, and Maurer a little, but now he could not hide it. His mood was gloomy, as he lay on his bunk, and he told Ada that for the first time he was scared. "I guess we shan't see Nome again," he said darkly.

She told him to stay in bed and rest, and promised that she would finish chopping the wood. She was used to it, she said, and had done that kind of work at home. The last thing Knight wanted to do was lie helpless in the tent while Ada took care of him. But when he found himself too weak to lift his head, he consented.

Ada went outside and took up the axe and began cutting the wood. Afterward, she collected snow for their drinking water, and then she took the map Maurer had left them of his trapline and followed it to his traps to check for foxes. As usual, there was nothing, and she turned back to camp, discouraged.

She had no idea Knight was this ill. No one had told her. Why had they not told her? She couldn't understand, but one thing was clear. Now she must take care of them until he was strong enough to get out of bed. She prayed he would recover enough in a few days to look after her again.


Knight felt the earth spin every time he made a sudden movement, and he lost his breath easily. He became so winded just lifting a piece of firewood that he had to sit down afterward and catch his breath. He didn't remember the severe shortness of breath or the swelling in his legs from the first round of scurvy he'd suffered in 1917.

He dreamed of fresh meat. If only a bear would wander into camp. If only he felt strong enough to make it to Maurer's traps to check for foxes. No doubt there would be at least a fox or two found there, but he had been afraid to check until he felt better because what if something should happen to him? The traps weren't terribly far from camp, but if he should lose consciousness or have an accident, there would be no one there to help him. The thought of being helpless did frighten him, and he would not take that risk, no matter how much he needed the fresh meat.

He should get up out of his bed and go chop some wood to replenish their stock. He needed to gather ice to make drinking water, and he needed to go hunting, to try to find something for them to eat, and to do so many other things. "But on the least movement, especially rapid, I am puffing like a freight locomotive," he recorded. He wished Crawford and the others would come back because he could see now that it was going to be hard for Ada if he became completely bedridden.

For now, she seemed cheerful enough, but he wondered how much of it was for show, to make him feel better, and to make herself feel better. He thought she was probably more frightened and distressed about his illness than he was, although she wasn't showing it to him. He could hear her outside sharpening the wood saw. She had told him she would do everything that needed to be done around camp until he felt better and could get up again and take care of everything as he had before, and he had no choice but to let her.

Ada was terrified of running into a polar bear while she was out checking the traps. She carried a snow knife with her, but that was all, because she was still frightened of rifles, and she knew she wouldn't have the slightest idea how to defend herself if she was caught by Nanook. While she was out walking, she would pause now and then, every so often, and have a look around for bears, knowing she would faint if she so much as caught a glimpse of one.

She went out every day now, looking for food. There was nothing at camp, and Knight was too weak to hunt, too weak to do anything but rest in bed. Ada herself was feeling listless and tired, and very much alone. She missed Crawford and Galle and Maurer, but particularly Crawford and Galle. Everything had changed drastically and suddenly when they went away. Now Knight was sick and she must figure out how to help him and what to do to keep them fed, and she wished the men would come back and help her. She wanted to give up the trapping because there were never any foxes and it made her weary to walk all those miles every single day. Also, daylight hours were still minimal and she worried about being caught in the dark miles from camp.

But she made herself go out, following Maurer's map until she learned the way herself, and one afternoon, she spotted some fox tracks circling around the traps, and she knelt down and dug the trap out of the snow. It was empty, and Ada figured she must have hidden it under too much snow last time. So she baited the trap again, leaving it uncovered.

The next morning, when she checked the traps, she found a fox lying in one of them. Her first one. Ada was proud and exhilarated. No one had told her how to fix the trap or to uncover it and leave it in the open. She had figured that out on her own and now she would have food to take to Knight. The very best part of it was that she had done it all herself.

Copyright © 2003 Jennifer Niven

Meet the Author

Jennifer Niven's first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program. The book, which has been translated into nine languages, has been featured in such publications as Newsweek, the New York Times, Glamour, the Washington Post, Outside, and Writer's Digest, and was the subject of full-length documentaries on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel. For more information, visit www.jenniferniven.com.

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Ada Blackjack: A True Story Of Survival In The Arctic 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I honestly have to say that it was with some hesitation that I read an advance copy of ADA. I was not familiar with Jennifer Niven and had no real desire to read a story about an Eskimo woman and 4 Arctic explorers. I was wrong. Jennifer Niven writes with clarity and passion about a story that is filled with both. I am curious to explore Miss Niven's other work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ada Blackjack shows the harshness of wilderness in the Artic and how one person overcame and survived. As the first reviewer stated, this is a sequel to the Ice Master. As one of the survivors of the Kurlak returns to the place of his nightmarish past. In both books it will show the true personality of Vilhjalmur Stefansson and his search for fame as an explorer through the deadly exploits of others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had read the ICE MASTER by Jennifer Niven when it was first published and found it a remarkably well written and compelling narrative of a strange arctic expedition lead by strange and misguided Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The story of the Karluk getting trapped in the ice and drifting north of Siberia to remote Wangel Island is gripping, as is the miracle of finding out who dies and survives. And now Jennifer Niven has written a kind of sequel or continuation of the story as the strange Mr. Stefansson sends four explorers back to Wangel island to live and settle so the island can be claimed by the British or Canadians (who want nothing to do with the expedition). Strange as it seems one of the survivors of the Karluk, Fred Maurer is one of these four. Joining the expedition is Ada Blackjack, an Inuit Eskimo woman they hire to sew clothing for them while living on Wangel Island. This second volume is told though Ada Blackjack¿s life story and introduces us to wide ranging cast of characters, the expeditions relatives, Mr. Harold Noice who leads a rescue mission and his mad wife Florence who¿s paranoia leads to lies and the undoing of Noice and Ada Blackjacks reputation. If this all sounds a bit like an arctic soap opera, it is of course, and the story is not as exciting a read as the ICE MASTER. But anyone who loved that volume as much as I did is sure to enjoy the complete irony of this return exposition and Ada Blackjack¿s Unusual life story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1921, notorious explorer Stefansson hires twentyish female Inuit Ada Blackjack as seamstress to four young Anglo-American males he recruited to claim the uninhabited Arctic Wrangel Island for the British Empire. The crew was under supplied as Stefansson expected them to live off the frozen tundra. They lacked any substantial sub zero weather experience though two once traveled beyond the Circle. At least the men (Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle) saw this expedition as a youthful lark. The mission failed miserably and three of the team headed to Siberia, leaving Ada to tend to the dying fifth companion. Two years later, Ada is the only one to return home; nothing but rumors of white male sightings beyond the Arctic Circle was ever heard from the trio.

ADA BLACKJACK is a great biography of a heroine who risks all so that her ailing son can receive proper medical care back in Nome. The book rips the dynamic leader Stefannson who remained behind in relative comfort though that might be an unfair historiography slight. His behavior is comparable to the World War I generals living in luxury in London, Paris, and Berlin while the grunts lacked shoes and breathed poison gas or presidents on campaign fundraisers while troops at war receive one MRE. Ada is a great individual whose survival is so spectacular one would think her tale is fiction. The media frenzy that follows her return brings readers back to reality as the frozen island seems warmer than the press corps. With this superb tome and the delightful ICE MASTER, Jennifer Niven is a leader of chronicling exciting and inspiring but doomed real life Arctic expeditions.

Harriet Klausner

Guest More than 1 year ago
I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced reading copy of ADA BLACKJACK. I thought at first that I would pass it on to a friend whose taste runs much more to the adventure genre than mine does, but once I opened it to the first page, I couldn't put it down. I turned off the phone, closed the blinds, and spent my entire weekend immersed in a gripping, stirring, and ultimately inspiring tale. Bravo to Niven for an amazing read and for introducing readers to a most remarkable (and controversial) heroine. My next weekend will be spent reading her first book, The Ice Master.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Talk about surviving Ada never gave up! Shecwasnt trying ti be a hero she just wanted to survive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Niven's honest portrayal of the trusting expedition members, it's pathetic and self-serving leader, the crew's bereaved and confused family memebers, and the blood-thirsty media are epic. One could not create a more unbelievable storyline. Through all of this, Ada Blackjack proves that no matter your background, age, or gender a person's true character surfaces during harsh times and hers was heroic and proud. This must be made into a movie so we can all learn from this amazing woman.
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BeethovenRH More than 1 year ago
While I would have enjoyed knowing more about Ada Blackjack, this was a very well researched book, filled with suspense. The author did a fantastic job of piecing together data from journals, news articles and surviving relatives to write a book that revealed a young woman as the unwitting hero of a doomed arctic exploration planned by a charletan who let everyone down in the end.d An amazing book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A compelling story of a woman with little education and at a time when men were in charge of great adventures, this woman rises to the occasion to aid the men when their struggles to overcome adversity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great story of survival and the general strive for Polar exploration happening in the 1920s. However, this is nothing more than a great story. It rambles at times, and the ending drags on, leaving the reader ready to be done and expecting some great surprise wrap-up that never comes. It's worth the read if your interest is peaked by the subject, but you should view it as a great story and not a great literary accomplishment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Remarkable survival story of endurance and suffering of a women and 4 men on a remote island in the arctic
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'll admit prejudice towards this book - after reading "The Ice Master" I was hooked on Ms. Niven's writing about Arctic exploration. This book covers Ms. Blackjack's life starting with expedition thru the end of her life, her childhood is not covered - so not a true biography. The 4 male members of the party are fleshed out as while as this lone women. Heartbreak of family members left behind and people stateside trying to make a buck off of tragedy are equally covered. A must read.
SurvivorTB More than 1 year ago
I love reading books of survival. Since I am going to Antarctica soon, I have been reading stories of the Arctic and Antarctica and found this book enthralling. Couldn't put it down. What a remarkable life. Can't imagine what she went through.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was well-written, well-researched, and very readable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the sample, and it had so many formatting problems that i didn't want to spend money on the real thing. Sentences are cut off and pages of text are repeated. This is a shame, since it looks like a fascinating story.