Looking for Sean McLachlan? He mostly hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog these days, but feel free to nose around this blog for some fun older posts!

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Friday, 16 May 2008

Fridtjof Nansen: Arctic Explorer

It's Biographer's Day today, commemorating the first meeting of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who wrote the famous biography of Johnson. So here and on my other blog, Midlist Writer, I'm looking at a couple of great biographies I've recently read.

I'm researching a book on Arctic exploration and have been reading E.E. Reynolds' biography Nansen. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian explorer who was the first to ski across Greenland. He also tried to be the first to make it to the North Pole. He noticed that much of the driftwood that washes up on Greenland's shores comes from Siberia, and theorized that it got caught in the ice, moved over the pole, and then thawed out and ended up on Greenland. He figured he could sail a ship up into the ice, let it get stuck, and the ice would carry him over the pole to Greenland.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. The currents are a little more complicated than Nansen assumed and the ship started veering in the wrong direction. At that point he and a companion left the ship and headed off on dog sleds for the Pole. This was, remember, in the days before radio, airplanes, GPS, or even accurate maps of the polar region. While his shipmates drifted off and eventually extricated themselves from the ice during the spring thaw, Nansen and his companion set off over the ice. Their only hope of survival was to eventually make their way back to land. They would never be able to find their ship again.

Unfortunately, the ice was too rough for them to make it to the North Pole, and the had to sled back to land, but not before spending an entire winter in the polar wastes. Reynolds' book is full of interesting information about one of the great explorers of history. His writing style isn't too lively (he has a penchant for putting everything in the passive voice) but he seems to realize his limitations and lets Nansen, who was a good writer, do much of the narrative. Well worth a read. My edition is one of those old-style Penguin paperbacks, published in 1949 and purchased at the PBFA London Book Fair for a grand total of two pounds.

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