The story of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans- Antarctic expedition of 1914–17 will be familiar to most readers. An adventure story chock-full of drama, disaster and extraordinary acts of fortitude, heroism and fellowship, the venture has a unique place in the public imagination. The original goal of the expedition now feels like a prelude to the main event: survival.
For anyone suffering a memory lapse: in 1914, famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 27 men and one cat set sail from Plymouth for Antarctica, intent on crossing the last uncharted continent on foot. Disaster ensued when Shackleton’s ship became wedged fast in pack ice. Conditions got steadily worse and endurance became the name of the game (as well as the name of the boat). Shackleton’s men established camp on Elephant Island. There followed one of the most courageous rearguard actions in Antarctic history, involving a small open boat, mountainous seas and the traversing of South Georgia’s unmapped glacial interior.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Joanna Grochowicz’s energetic retelling of the expedition is that she manages to make the tale fresh and find new insights and pathos in elements often passed over by more conventional accounts. As a polar primer, it sits alongside the author’s other icy opuses (one focused on Scott and one on Amunsden) as perfect guides to introduce new generations to the feats and grit of adventurers past. Throughout, the reader is placed at the heart of the action. We travel, fret and suffer with ‘The Boss’ and his crew, mourn the poor cat, Mrs Chippy, and are immersed in the grind of the gruelling ice trek that follows the crippled ship’s demise.
The book reminded me of Grochowicz’s fellow New Zealander Lloyd Jones’s novel about the first All Black rugby tour of Europe in 1905, The Book of Fame, with its immersive hive-mind dialogue and superb, dynamic accounts of comradeship and near-telepathic teamwork in unfamiliar conditions. Both books end in triumph against all odds and expectations; bands of brothers sailing home, exhausted, amazed, carrying stories for the ages.