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 GreatSee more details below


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full advantage of the wealth of first-hand resources about Ada that exist, including her never-before-seen diaries, the unpublished diaries from other primary characters, and interviews with Ada's surviving son.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.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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
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

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