Normally, I like to read tales of polar exploration when the thermometer drops below 0 Fahrenheit. However, Amazon has its own schedule.
Review: A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, David Welky, 2016.
The history of polar exploration is full of disappointment and failure. However, there aren’t a lot of tales of polar exploration that descend into not only outright dissension but murder too. And none of those are documented so personally by the principals involved from not only their published writings but personal journals and diaries.
In 1913, the Crocker Island Expedition set off to explore an island, neigh a continent, sighted by Captain Robert Peary in 1908 on his penultimate expedition to attain the North Pole.
Weather, logistical problems caused by World War One, and public indifference stretched the expedition out to four years. The brutal polar clime, the long nights and social isolation, the deprivations of sledding and short provisions, changed the men. Some discovered inner reserves and talents, some realized the importance of loved ones they left, and some psychologically disintegrated.
Welky pulls the reader through the story in a high state of suspense partly because of its obscurity and the parallax view of all those personal and largely unpublished writings. The frontpiece is of a map – but only of the Arctic as theorized in 1912. Further the suspense, Welky narrates his story chronologically. Characters drop out of the story unexpectedly and a nice coda is provided for the principals’ post-expedition lives.
He also acknowledges the indispensability of the native Inuit in this account. Not only does he concisely cover points of their culture and history and survival skills, but the effects of their contact with Europeans and Americans and the various expedition members’ attitudes towards them ranging from total admiration to contempt.
With a complete index, footnotes, bibliography and some rather grainy photos, this book should be of interest to any buff of polar exploration.
Additional Thoughts (with spoilers)
This above review is vague on the details to spare Welky’s suspense.
I’ll note what I found most interesting
The whole Crocker Island Expedition was based on a knowing lie by Robert Peary to keep his financial options open for a future expedition to the North Pole. Pierre Breton’s The Arctic Grail convincingly argued that neither Frederick Cook nor Peary ever reached the North Pole. Welky talks about other lies Peary told about his expeditions.
However, Peary’s acolyte, the leader of the Crocker Island Expedition, Donald MacMillan, never doubted Peary’s veracity though his painful experience led him to think Peary saw a fata morgana, one of the peculiar optical illusions in the Arctic.
MacMillan was a flawed leader of the scientific expedition to Crocker Land. He early on exhibited initiative and care for his men, an administrative talent, was a hard worker. But he was sloppy in his ethnological studies of the Inuit, didn’t keep track of his separated party as well as he should, sometimes didn’t account for supplies well. What he loved was simply being in the Arctic and thought others in the expedition should share that love. And, despite the failure of his own expedition, he later became an important naval explorer. On his many geologic, cartographic, and ethnographic surveys of the Arctic, his wife, 28 years his junior, often accompanied him. In 1954, nearly 80, he finally retired and was awarded the rank of Rear Admiral by the U.S. Navy.
Not exactly a villain if still a murderer, the most interesting character is Fitzhugh Green. Descendant of a once rich and noted family now fallen on hard times, Green was a man on the make and pushed along by his mother. Something of a graphomaniac, he “glided between toady, able administrator, and borderline psychopath” filling journals with “stream of consciousness … fictionalized autobiography, sometimes proto-science fiction and sometimes all of them at the same time”. His account of shooting an Inuit guide Piugaatoq shows ruthlessness, panic, and rationalizations.
Green’s bizarre story ends in 1947 with a conviction, after marrying Margery Durant, daughter of a founder of General Motors, for selling narcotics. Perhaps he died of natural causes. Perhaps Margery pushed him down some stairs. Welky also covers the political interest in the murder of Piugaattoq.
More reviews of works on polar exploration are found here.