Journalist Pitzer (One Long Night) recounts the three Arctic voyages of 16th-century Dutch navigator and cartographer William Barents in this impressively researched history. Seeking a northeastern passage to China, Barents and other sailors and merchants subscribed to “the idea of a warm North Pole,” Pitzer writes, “an easily navigable sea... that might carry them over the top of the world and deliver them to profitable lands.” After frozen seas turned back his first two expeditions, Barents rounded the northern tip of Nova Zembla, an island north of mainland Russia, in August 1596. His ship became encased in three feet of ice, however, forcing Barents and the rest of the crew to wait out the winter in a cabin they built onshore. They survived polar bear attacks and temperatures of 30 degrees below zero, and in June 1597, with the ship still trapped in ice, set out for home in two small boats. Barents, who was suffering from scurvy and had poisoned himself by eating polar bear liver, died seven days into the return journey. Pitzer captures the terror of bone-chilling temperatures and crushing ice floes, and includes edifying digressions on the Dutch war of independence (1568–1648), Viking navigation techniques, and scurvy’s deadly effects on the human body. This engrossing account thrills and educates. Agent: Katherine Boyle, Veritas Literary. (Jan.)
A gripping adventure tale that deserves an honored place in the long bookshelf of volumes dealing with arctic shipwrecks, winter ordeals, and survival struggles.”
"A resonant meditation on human ingenuity, resilience, and hope."
—The New Yorker
“A fascinating modern telling of Barents’s expeditions....Ms. Pitzer presents a compelling narrative situated in the context of Dutch imperial ambition. She writes vividly about the ‘unnerving isolation’ of venturing north and east of Scandinavia into uncharted waters.”
—Wall Street Journal
“The expedition’s highlight reel included everything a polar fan could want: hand-to-hand combat with polar bears and walruses; scurvy and vitamin A poisoning; asphyxiation by carbon dioxide; frostbite, keelhauling and hangings; plus the sighting of a rare atmospheric optical phenomenon called a parhelion...Pitzer writes with care about the Arctic landscape Barents encountered...A reminder that there was once a time when things were unknown.”
—New York Times Book Review
“The name of William Barents isn’t that familiar to us these days beyond perhaps a line of type on your atlas... but this enthralling, elemental and literally spine-chilling epic of courage and endurance should change all that.”
—Daily Mail (UK)
“Dramatic and dire...[the men]fight off polar bears that rear up from nowhere, attacking until they are slaughtered or driven away. The ship tacks endlessly and desperately to escape floating ‘mountains of steel’...Ms. Pitzer’s descriptions of the region sing.”
“Narratives of frozen beards in polar hinterlands never lose their appeal. Most of the good stories have been told, but in Icebound Andrea Pitzer fills a gap, at least for the popular reader in English, with the story of the 16th-century Dutch mariner William Barents....Elegant.”
“Richly descriptive...The real grip of the book lies in the horrendous dangers and hardships endured by Barents and his shipmates, and the determination with which they met them... For these explorers, it was as if they had visited another planet, a hostile place of alien creatures and otherworldly horrors.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Andrea Pitzer does a fine job of telling this gripping adventure, painting a convincing portrait of an obsessive who put his life on the line for glory and knowledge—and succumbed.”
—The Observer (UK)
“A masterful re-creation of a desperate fight for survival [that] takes us back nearly half a millennium and plunks us down in a vividly realized world...More than just another book about a disastrous sea voyage, this is a richly evocative story about a particular period in the history of exploration. Icebound deserves a place beside such classics as Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage and Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundson's Race to the South Pole.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Pitzer’s narrative vividly conveys tension and terror. A meticulously researched history of maritime tragedy.”
"Long before Bering or Amundsen, long before Franklin or Shackleton, there was William Barents, in many ways the greatest polar explorer of them all. In this engrossing narrative of the Far North, enriched by her own adventurous sojourns in the Arctic, Andrea Pitzer brings Barents’ three harrowing expeditions to vivid life—while giving us fascinating insights into one of history's most intrepid navigators."
—Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice
“Who knew that William Barents’s 16th-century journeys so strongly influenced the great 19th-century arctic expeditions? Andrea Pitzer’s visceral, thrilling account is full of such tantalizing surprises, a delight on every level.”
—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal
“Buried in snow, besieged by ice, and hunted by ravenous polar bears, explorer William Barents and his Dutch shipmates, seeking a northern trade route to the Far East, found themselves trapped in an epic battle for survival in the unknown, ice-locked Arctic. Andrea Pitzer’s worthy and superb account keeps us enthralled to the last chilling word.”
—Dean King, nationally bestselling author of Skeletons on the Zahara and The Feud
“The bone-chilling tale of a legendary journey in which survival depended on leadership, teamwork, and superhuman endurance—as well as the ability to outpace and out-battle icebergs and polar bears....A masterwork of narrative nonfiction.”
—Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times bestselling author of Frozen in Time and Fall and Rise
“Gives readers a new understanding of the phrase uncharted territory.... Methodically researched and elegantly told.”
—Beth Macy, New York Times bestselling author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America
"An enchantment. Pitzer expertly draws the reader into landscapes so unfamiliar and unsettling that they may as well be stolen from science fiction....[Features] ordeals that—to today’s readers—can seem nearly unimaginable.”
—Steve Silberman, author, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
“Page after page, Pitzer puts you inside one of the greatest adventures you’ll ever encounter. Beyond thrilling. Beyond enthralling. I found this a tale so involving that I simply couldn’t put it down.”
—Martin W. Sandler, author of the National Book Award finalist 1919 and The Impossible Rescue
"Stunning...shines with the glitter of sun reflecting off polar ice, auroral light shimmering in the night sky, and—mostly—the sheer, stubborn power of the undaunted human spirit."
—Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
"Fascinating, bizarre, and very human...A riveting account of lives drawn into a world that seems at once dream and nightmare."
—Blair Braverman, author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North
“An epic tale of exploration, daring, and tragedy told by a fine historian—and a wonderful writer.”
—Peter Frankopan, internationally bestselling author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
“In Icebound Andrea Pitzer has accomplished something unique—she presents the daily lives of the early Dutch Arctic explorers with such precision and clarity that the reader becomes as immersed in the rawness of their experiences as one could ever imagine. Through unflinching detail, she describes the struggle for survival faced by three separate expeditions seeking a northeast passage from Europe to China (one of those voyages culminating in being marooned for months in the frozen north). Without sentimentality, she describes the perseverance and selfless sacrifice of the men involved, which allows a glimpse into the true nature of human courage. This is a book you will not want to put down, except to catch your breath.”
—William E. Glassley, author of A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice
“Andrea Pitzer accomplishes for William Barents what the explorer could not do for himself: rescue his amazing life from the grip of the Arctic and centuries of hagiography. The Barents who appears in Pitzer’s spyglass seems impressively close to the actual man: intensely bold, highly skilled, and catastrophically wrong.”
—P.J. Capelotti, author of The Greatest Show in the Arctic
William Barents (c. 1550–1597) was a Dutch navigator and cartographer who sailed three times into the Arctic searching for a shorter trade route to China. His first two voyages in 1594 and 1595 were unsuccessful because of ice and mutiny. Barents's third voyage, in 1596, was tasked with sailing over the North Pole to trade with China. He discovered Spitsbergen, Bear Island, and the nesting site of barnacle geese, but became icebound on the northeastern coast of Nova Zembla. Barents and the surviving crew were threatened by polar bears, scurvy, ice, and Arctic weather for over ten months. The crew left Ice Harbor on June 13, 1597, and began rowing and sailing home. Sadly, Barents died seven days later, though the sailors were rescued seven weeks after that. Journalist Pitzer uses the writings of Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, among others, to create a rich retelling of the life of Barents, who broadened scientific knowledge with observations that he and his crew made of Arctic flora, fauna, weather, and atmospheric events. The Dutch thoroughly embraced his legacy and renamed the Murmans Sea in his honor in 1853. VERDICT An engaging read for fans of polar and Arctic history.—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Univ. of Evansville Lib., IN
Biography/history of a 16th-century Dutchman who sailed courageously to the North Pole.
Pitzer, a journalist who last wrote a global history of concentration camps, draws on diaries, archival material, and her own three trips to the Arctic to recount, in exhaustive detail, three arduous journeys carried out by navigator William Barents in search of a northern route to the Far East. Barents was in his mid-40s, with a wife and five children, when, in 1594, he joined an exploratory fleet whose mission was part of the Dutch Republic’s effort to “transform their country into a world power.” The first expedition was successful: After traveling more than 3,000 miles, the fleet identified two possible routes to China, and every sailor returned home safely. The second expedition, though, had worse luck. The seven ships that sailed in 1595 constantly feared being trapped by ice; weathered violent storms; and battled polar bears, which attacked and ate two sailors. Morale plummeted, and the ringleaders of a mutiny were hanged. Barents’ third expedition, which set out in 1596, proved disastrous. “They’d sailed once more into merciless terrain without even basic strategies to survive in it,” Pitzer writes, and they became locked in ice, forcing them to overwinter in the Arctic. The author chronicles the crew’s daily experiences, hauling lumber for miles, dismantling their ship for planks, building a shelter, hunting for meat, and surviving temperatures that dropped to 30 degrees below zero. They were weakened and ill from scurvy and once poisoned themselves from eating bear liver. By the time they freed two small boats from the ice and sailed for home, several had died. Though Barents succumbed during the return and had found no northern route to China, he became legendary, leaving a legacy of determination and becoming “the patron saint of devoted error.” Although sometimes overwhelmed by repetitive detail, Pitzer’s narrative vividly conveys tension and terror.
A meticulously researched history of maritime tragedy.