cover image A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier

A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier

David Welky. Norton, $28.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-393-25441-9

Life in the extreme north was a hellish ordeal for early 20th-century American and Inuit explorers, as described in this exciting adventure saga. Historian Welky (The Thousand-Year Flood) recounts the 1913 expedition to find “Crocker Land,” a possible continent in the Arctic Ocean that was glimpsed by Robert Peary during an earlier failed attempt on the North Pole. The trek took the explorers to Greenland and then hundreds of miles west across rugged Ellesmere Island and onto the frozen sea. Drawing on extensive expedition diaries, Welky’s absorbing narrative highlights the perils of polar travel, including ice that piled up in impassable ridges or broke beneath one’s feet, fractious sled-dogs, lethal weather, frostbite, disease, starvation, and exhaustion. It’s also a vivid account of the culture clash between grandiose Americans and the pragmatic Inuit communities they relied on for survival, and an absorbing study of how humans warp under pressure: the men on one sled-trip that ran into a blizzard descended into madness and murder, and expedition members stuck in a cabin during months-long winter darkness—thanks to unlucky weather that iced in rescue ships and marooned the Americans in Greenland for four years—picked mercilessly at one another. This is a classic explorer’s narrative, pitting ambition against the limits of endurance. Photos. (Nov.)