Monday, February 20, 2006

Ada Blackjack: A Book Review

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven is the second really excellent historical book set in the 1920's that I've read this winter. Like Kevin Boyle (though perhaps without his historian's perspective), Niven has researched the scraps of documentary evidence and written a totally gripping story. It's all too easy to imagine being on that bleak island above the Arctic Circle north of Siberia. Niven's story - or rather her telling of Ada's story - sucks you in and makes what happened even more shocking and appalling.

Basically, an ill-fitted arctic exploration was put together by entertainer/explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson in the early 1920's. He persuaded four young men (Allan Crawford, Fred Mauer, E. Lorne Knight & Milton Galle) to go claim this desolate island for Canada and write about it for science, for glory, to show that men could conquer the Arctic. Two of them had some experience in the Arctic; Mauer had in fact almost died several years earlier when marooned on Wrangel Island.

A series of accidents happened on the way to Wrangel Island - the umiak (skin boat that was a must for seal & walrus hunting) blew off the ship taking them there, the Eskimo families they hired all backed out at the last minute (except for the main character, Ada, who was too desperate to earn money sewing winter clothes for the explorers so she could help her sick toddler), and the relief boat that was supposed to come the following summer couldn't make it because of the weather.

It got progressively worse. Finally, seeing that they were running out of food and they wouldn't be able to hunt enough on the island to survive the second winter, three of men took the remaining dogs & sled and set off for help. Ada was left with Knight, who was too ill from scurvy to handle the trip.

Ada ended up teaching herself to hunt and trap to keep herself and Lorne Knight alive. Unfortunately, Knight's scurvy progressed, and he died in the middle of the second summer there. Ada spent a couple of months by herself, terrified of the polar bears, reading Knight's bible, and thinking of her son in Nome. Harrowing doesn't begin to describe it.

I didn't really expect a happy ending, since the three men that went for help were never heard from again, but the aftermath - the reporters hounding Ada, the finger pointing and blame, the racism, the attempts of the four families to come to terms with the loss of their sons, and Ada's continued hardships - were all fascinating, as were the different backgrounds and personalities of the five people on the island from 1921-1923.

The pictures and the diaries that the men and Ada kept were haunting. There were so many "ifs" - "if only they'd had an umiak", "if only Knight had recognized the symptoms of scurvy earlier", "if only they'd stored more meat earlier in the year", "if only the weather hadn't been so bad"....

Anyway, this book is highly recommended if you like history, the Arctic, or stories of endurance. For some more background on Ada & the expedition, check out this Alaska LitSite on The Heroine of Wrangel Island.

1 comment:

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