Ada Blackjack

Niven, Jennifer. Ada Blackjack: a True Story of Survival in the Arctic. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Reason read: Ear-marking the reindeer is an Arctic tradition that takes place in the summer.

Jennifer Niven calls Ada Blackjack a hero. I don’t think I would go that far. She didn’t save anyone’s life and her heroic deeds were limited to having the courage and resourcefulness to survive her unlikely predicament physically unscathed. I say unlikely because what would a impoverished and divorced 23 year old Inuit woman (a rumored prostitute) be doing on a potentially illegal expedition in the wilds of an Arctic island with four young white men and a cat? Desperate to find a husband and to make enough money to care for her oft-ill son, Ada signs on a seamstress with explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson’s mission to colonize barren Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia. Using the theory of squatters’ rights, Stafansson sent four young men and six months worth of supplies to plant the British flag on what he thought was unclaimed land. He only sent them with six months of supplies because he was sure they could survive off the land once they had exhausted their stores. What could possibly go wrong in the “friendly” Arctic?
It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ada was the only human to make it out alive (and yes, the cat survives, too). But, here’s where the story gets interesting. Stefansson vacillates between wanting to take all the credit for Ada’s survival and pretending he’s never heard of the woman. It’s what happens after the rescue that becomes the bigger story.

As an aside, I love the process of discovery. While Niven was researching her first book, The Ice Master she discovered Nome, Alaska native Ada Blackjack. Ada’s adventure intrigued Niven enough to prompt her to dig into Blackjack’s life story and ultimately, write a memoir about her expedition with four white men (and a cat) to Wrangel Island. To carry that idea of discovery a step further, after reading Ada Blackjack I found a documentary on her. I got caught up in her mystique, too.

Author fact: Niven also wrote The Ice Master which is on my Challenge list.

Book trivia: Ada Blackjack includes two wonderful sections of photographs. A handful of comments about the photos: the expedition cat, Vic, is fantastic. Milton Galle is a man’s man and my favorite photo is of Vic and Milton.  They were all good looking people.

Nancy said: If you like Krakauer or Junger, you will like Niven.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “To the Ends of the Earth: North and South” (p 231).


Lady Franklin’s Revenge

McGoogan, Ken. Lady Franklin’s Revenge: a True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. London: Bantam Books, 2006.

Lady Jane Franklin is right up there with Freya Stark and Isabella Bird when it comes to fearless lady travelers – except Stark and Bird were barely born before Franklin started her travels. She truly exemplified a pioneer in female expedition. Although Nancy Pearl doesn’t include Franklin in her chapter on the subject in Book Lust, Franklin was the first to venture to far off places such as Russia, Africa and the wilds of Australia at a time when Victorian women were expected to stay at home, be dutiful wives and raise docile families. Jane Griffin was different. From a very young age she couldn’t be bothered with such domestic pursuits. She wanted an education, an adventure, and to be an outspoken voice. Even after marrying John Franklin and becoming an instant mother to his four year old daughter, Jane Franklin felt no parental responsibility for Eleanor and continued to travel on her “own” (servants and escorts not counted). It was only after her husband, now Sir John Franklin, disappeared in the Arctic that another obsession besides travel of Lady Franklin’s was realized- to bring her husband home. She spared no expense (even her stepdaughter’s inheritance) and pulled out all the stops to convince high-powered officials that her husband’s expedition was worth searching for. At a time when America and Great Britain were not on the best of terms, Lady Franklin worked deals with both countries to send rescue expeditions into unknown waters. She worked tirelessly to keep the missing ships in the minds of everyone on both sides of the pond. Even after the mystery of Frankin’s disappearance had been solved, Lady Franklin insisted his name should carry on as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage.

Can I just say I wish I could have known Lady Franklin? For some reason I find her incredibly cool. While I don’t admire her selfish behavior and prejudice ways, I value the strength in her independence, her tenacity and resolve.

Quoting my favorite lines, “She cloaked her need in the language of love, thus deluding even herself” (p 53), and “In her twenties, the studious Jane Griffin not only read prodigiously, but began keeping a special notebook, updated annually, in which she listed books and articles she perused” (p 63). I, too, keep a journal of such lists. Only my journal is updated monthly and I don’t include articles. Just books.

Reason read: Jane Griffin Franklin was born in December. Reading Lady Franklin’s Revenge in her honor.

Author fact: Ken McGoogan also wrote a biography of Samuel Hearn, another adventurer fascinated with Arctic exploration.

Book trivia: One of the great things about McGoogan’s Lady Franklin is the variety of photographs included. Something as simple as a photograph of a replica of the dress Jane would have worn as a young woman was appreciated. It added texture to the text, if you will.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “To the Ends of the Earth: North and South” (p 232).


Arctic Grail

Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Gail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818 – 1909. New York: Viking, 1988.

This is a “take two” book. I started it in 2011 and didn’t finish it. Didn’t even come close. I think I borrowed it too late in the month of February and realized I couldn’t read all 600+ pages before the start of March. This time I was smart and ordered it before February 1st so that I could start reading it on the very first day of the month (which was a neat 25 pages per day).

The Arctic Grail: the Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818 – 1909 is exactly that – an extensive and wide angled look at the explorers who took on the quest to find the North West Passage between 1818 and 1909. A variety of influential characters are detailed, starting with Sir John Ross and William Edward Parry and ending with Frederick Cook and Robert Edwin Peary. Parry, probably the most unique of the group, was young (only 29), big into keeping his crew entertained with music, theater and even a newspaper. He was also deeply religious. “His greatest accomplishment was his understanding of his crew and his determination to keep them healthy in mind as well as body” (p 34). Other explorers were drawn to the Arctic despite wanting family lives. Several married just before embarking on trips that would take them away from their new brides for several years. The obsession to find the North West Passage was strong and unyielding. This obsession almost takes on a quality of mental illness for some of the explorers, risking the health and even lives of their ships and crew. When John Franklin goes missing his wife, Lady Franklin, becomes just as obsessed with finding him.

Favorite and/or intriguing lines, “The British Navy was never comfortable with dogs” (p 43) and “She devoured books (295 in one three-year period) – books on every subject: travel, education, religion, social problems…” (p 122) and the sentence that sums up the obsession, “He was..obsessed with the Arctic, a quality that more and more seemed to be the prime requisite for would-be northern adventurers” (p 345).

Reason read: in honor of the birth (and death) month of Elisha Kent Kane, one of the medical officers in the British Royal Navy who attempted to find lost Navy officer Sir John Franklin. He intrigues me because he was a crowned a hero despite the fact several of his crew revolted.

Author Fact: Towards the end of Berton’s life he admitted he had been a recreational pot smoker for over 40 years. He even went on a Canadian television station to “educate” people on how to roll a joint correctly. I Kid You Not. It’s on YouTube. Funny stuff.

Book trivia: With Arctic Grail cataloged at 672 pages long this book was very heavy to carry around. I left it in the office and made sure I read 30-40 pages every lunch break.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Here Be Dragons: The Great Explorers and Expeditions” (p 110).