Thursday, June 07, 2012

Book Review: South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition 1914-1917

The Kindle did it again! I've said before that books can transport you to places and experiences you would never otherwise encounter, and so it was with this free Kindle ebook, leading to a chilly read. Sir Ernest Shackleton was one of the great polar explorers, and this volume invites you to travel with him on his attempted expedition across Antarctica. As the world began to go to war in 1914, Shackleton and his dedicated band of adventurers were setting off to explore the Antarctic region, including a trek across the South Pole from one side to the other. This is the story of their journey.

From the outset, the reader is told that the expedition failed in its objective, but nevertheless 'there are chapters in this book of high adventure, strenuous days, lonely nights, unique experiences, and, above all, records of unflinching determination, supreme loyalty, and generous self-sacrifice on the part of my men.' (foreward). The reader is transported to the barren wilds of the South Pole and the whole polar region, with stories of football played on ice floes, long months of winter darkness, hunting for penguins and seals, dodging sharks and killer whales, low food stocks, and scary moments.

Early on, Shackleton's boat becomes stuck in the ice field, and the party have to set out on sledge and foot across the ice, not having made it to 'dry land' yet. Their bravery knows no bounds, in that terrible and desolate place; with courage and encouragement keeping their spirits high as they urge each other on through moments of thirst and hunger, as well as the sadness of losing the dog sled teams. The puniness of man compared to the wonders of Nature were felt: 'We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.' (p. 115)

There were some insights into Shackleton's sense of responsibility and thoughts on leadership:

'I confess that I felt the burden of responsibility sit heavily on my shoulders; but on the other hand, I was stimulated and cheered by the attitude of the men. Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.' (p. 68)

At the same time, there was a quiet confidence in the Providence of the Almighty God: 'When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea... I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.'

That crossing had been when Shackleton took two of the party with him in an attempt to bring help from the whaling station at South Georgia, having crossed the sea in a little boat entirely unsuited to such a journey. The lieutenant left in charge of the remaining men on the ice had an infectious leadership style, brimming with confidence that spilled over into his companions:

'Wild reckoned that help would come in August, and every morning he had packed his kit, in cheerful anticipation that proved infectious, as I have no doubt it was meant to be... "You see, boss, Wild never gave up hope, and whenever the sea was at all clear of ice he rolled up his sleeping bag and said to all hands, 'Roll up your sleeping bags boys; the boss may come today." Talk about an illustration for an eschatalogical hope!

This was a fascinating read, both chilling and yet inspiring. Chilling, because with the constant depiction of ice and snow and temperature of 0 degrees Farenheit (let alone Celsius!), it makes the reader a little cold, even in the heat. Inspiring, because of the leadership provided by Shackleton and the willingness of the men to serve and help and encourage each other. All in all, it was a remarkable journey, even if unsuccessful, and well worth reading for the bargain price of £0.00! South can be downloaded from Amazon for the Kindle.

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