Nothing says 'summer reading' like a trip to Antarctica

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I love a good cold-weather book to take the edge off the summer heat, and summer is the time to read Nick Bertozzi's Shackleton, the story of the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition.

When Ernest Shackleton set out to walk across Antarctica, in 1914, the South Pole had already been visited by two explorers, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. The Great War had just begun, and this is quickly put into context: Shackleton realizes that if he doesn't get his expedition funded now, it may never happen. His plan was to make the first crossing of Antarctica on foot, using two ships; one would drop him and his companions off on one side of the continent, while the other would land on the other side, set up a series of stations with provisions for the traveling party, and then wait to bring them back to England.

It didn't work out that way. Shackleton's ship got stuck in the ice and was crushed, and he and his men spent months on the ice before sailing their lifeboats to an uninhabited island. From there, Shackleton and a small party traveled 800 miles in an open boat to the South Georgia whaling station, where he got reinforcements and rescued the rest of his men. While the party failed in its endeavor, they made it through the ordeal with no loss of life (although three men from the other party died laying supply depots that were never used).

So this is the story of a journey, but not a straightforward one, because there are big swaths of time when either nothing happens (as when the men wait out the Antarctic winter camped on the ice) or a straightforward telling would be monotonous (the boat trip across the open sea). Rather than trying to tell the story in a single continuous arc, Bertozzi chooses a series of vignettes that show small incidents of everyday life in the ice camp, such as how the explorers amused themselves with football, dogsled races, and even a mock trial while they waited out the Antarctic winter, and individual events such as a massive wave and a mirage on the boat trip. He also shows the party trekking across mountains and ice fields, and you never lose the sense of how long and arduous this journey was, but he also keeps it in human terms. It's a nice balance.

Bertozzi really uses the visual aspects of the medium to ground the reader as well as tell his story. He starts out with a map of the Antarctic and a few short strips that summarize the previous expeditions to the region, including the two in which Shackleton participated. He shows Shackleton's planned route on a big map, then breaks it into steps with smaller images. Later on, he illustrates the interior of the ship not just with a cutaway view but with a little story about one of the dogs running off through its various sections, stealing a string of sausages from the galley and ending up in the crew's quarters. As the journey progresses, he uses maps and birds-eye views to give a sense of place and scale. He tells us that the Rampart iceberg rises 300 feet above sea level, but a few pages later he brings that home with an image of the explorers descending its slope, tiny against the massive berg, and the ship even tinier in the distance.

That sense of scale dominates this book. The Antarctic is vast, and Bertozzi's figures are almost always small, whether he is showing them crossing the ice pack or in more intimate moments.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Shackleton's expedition, which set out on August 8, 1914. Frankly, to modern eyes the expedition looks like colonialist hubris, but this is not a story of man dominating nature, it's a story of the best aspects of the human spirit coming through under extreme conditions. That every member of the crew survived the ordeal is a testimony not only to Shackleton's leadership but also the decisions made by each and every one of them, and by showing us the small moments and the personal interactions, Bertozzi is telling us the true story of the Shackleton expedition.

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