I heard about Alfred Lansing’s Endurance when FictionFan awarded it Book of the Year 2018. (I’m going to read Tombland too, but that’s part of a series and I’ve got a lot of reading to do first.)
In 1914, Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Endurance with 27 men to begin the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” and cross the Antarctic on foot—the “last great Polar journey” of 1,800 miles:
Shackleton’s plan was to take a ship into the Weddell Sea and land a sledging party of six men and seventy dogs near Vahsel Bay […]. At more or less the same time, a second ship would put into McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea, almost directly across the continent from the Weddell Sea base. The Ross Sea party was to set down a series of food caches from their base almost to the Pole. While this was being done, the Weddell Sea group would be sledging toward the Pole, living on their own rations. […] Other caches of rations along the route would keep them supplied until they arrived at the McMurdo Sound base. (9)
The plan goes awry when the Endurance is trapped in pack ice and adrift for months. The crew remains in good spirits while stuck, but they’re forced to abandon ship when the Endurance is finally crushed. The book begins with these lines:
The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care. (3)
Their previous time in the ice is recapped after this section, but by beginning so dramatically Lansing ensures the reader won’t drop the book until the final pages. Because this is a true story, it feels disrespectful to use words/phrases like “dramatic” or “brilliantly paced.” The brutal obstacles that beset the crew don’t happen because Lansing devised a line of plot points to engage the reader; they happen because they happened to real people. That said, Lansing takes an already remarkable story and tells it in a way that is engaging and emotional.
What most surprised me was how this story of hardship and tenacity includes relatable (even funny) moments. Amidst their quest for survival, the men have to solve common problems, like snorers:
There were a number of other minor annoyances, including the matter of snoring. Hurley wrote: “Wild has devised an ingenious arrangement for the cure of chronic snorers. Lees, who continually disturbs our peaceful slumbers by his habitual trumpeting, was the first offender for the experiment. A slip noose is attached to his arm which is led by a series of eyelets across the bunks to [Wild’s] vicinity. As the various sleepers are disturbed they vigorously haul on the line—much as one would do to stop a taxi. It might do the latter—but Lees is incorrigible, scarcely heeding our signals. It has been suggested that the noose be tried around his neck. I’m sure many would exert their full man power.” (214)
At the other end of the scale, Lansing effectively conveys the extreme cold, hunger, and isolation of the men. When Shackleton is forced to split his party and go for rescue, he looks back at the island where his men wait in hope:
A forbidding-looking place, certainly, but that only made it seem the more pitiful. It was the refuge of twenty-two men who, at that very moment, were camped on a precarious, storm-washed spit of beach, as helpless and isolated from the outside world as if they were on another planet. Their plight was known only to the six men in this ridiculously little boat, whose responsibility now was to prove that all the laws of chance were wrong—and return with help. It was a staggering trust. (225)
There are a few historical quibbles around the Internet, but I don’t have the means to vet them. Everything I know about the Endurance is from this book and Lansing had access to premium sources: the men’s diaries, and interviews with almost all survivors. The only disappointment is from a storytelling angle, in that the book abruptly ends once the outcome is certain. I wanted to know what happened to the men after their return. I turned the last page and said, “Wait, that’s it??” but that’s what Wikipedia is for.
Overall: 4.9 (out of 5)
Image credit: Amazon