Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The great white way


Jenny Davidson linked yesterday to new digitized photos from Robert Scott's tragic Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica in 1910. The photos are now owned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and starting March 4th will be available at Freeze Frame.

There are several books on the Terra Nova trip that I can recommend but a good place to start is Richard Farr's Emperors of the Ice which I reviewed in December for Bookslut:

"While the name Robert Scott might be known to young readers, it is unlikely that they have read about some of the more successful aspects of his fateful 1909 journey to the South Pole. As he explains in the preface to his new book, Emperors of the Ice, author Richard Farr was particularly taken with the “Winter Journey” portion of that expedition. Later recounted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his bestselling narrative The Worst Journey in the World, the trip to collect Emperor penguin eggs nearly killed “Cherry,” Dr. Edward Wilson and Lt. Henry Bowers. As it turned out Wilson and Bowers did not survive the race to the Pole with Scott and it was only Cherry who was later able to provide the first person account of Scott’s dedication to science. Unfortunately, Cherry’s book is a bit of a “doorstop” as Farr puts it. A lot of readers might be intimidated by its size (almost 600 pages) or its age. This is most true for teen readers for whom the adventurous aspects of the book would otherwise be very appealing. So Farr wrote about the journey in an easier format. Heavily illustrated with maps and photographs from the expedition, Emperors of the Ice is exactly the sort of book that readers eager for the unknown will adore.

One interesting choice Farr made was to write the book from Cherry’s perspective. Relying primarily on Worst Journey for his text, Farr crafted a book that literally places the reader there with Cherry, Bill Wilson and Birdie Bowers as they struggled against enormous odds (and nearly died) in pursuit of the hidden secrets of bird evolution. While science has proven that Wilson’s thesis about the penguins was incorrect, the larger idea that birds and dinosaurs were related is true. But more amazingly, discovering that polar explorers actually risked their lives in pursuit of ornithological revelations is heartening in the best sort of way. They were brave and superhumanly determined and it was all for science. After so many books about winning it is wonderful to be reminded that Scott was in a race only because it was thrust upon him by circumstance; that his goal was always just to learn more. (Something that Richard Byrd and George Catlin would both understand.) Emperors of the Ice manages then to salute both men of adventure and intellect. There are action movies and video games and then there is what was accomplished at the bottom of the world nearly a century ago. This is thrilling writing and it will hopefully open up a whole world of polar literature to readers looking for something to believe in."

Readers who want to know more about Cherry in particular should then move on to Sara Wheeler's outstanding biography, Cherry. It covers not only the expedition but the difficulty of being one of the men who lived and also lost his two closest friends. (More of my thoughts on that book can be found at a past entry on my site, Chasing Ray.)

[Post pic of geologists Frank Debenham and T Griffith Taylor.]


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