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BOOK REVIEW: Charles W. Johnson: ICE SHIP The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer FRAM

ce Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer FRAM by Charles W. Johnson
Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer FRAM     by Charles W. Johnson

reviewed by Lindsey Grutchfield

During the golden years of polar exploration, swarms of explorers flocked to the Arctic and the Antarctic regions of the globe. Some were scientists, hoping to further understanding of some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Others were captivated by the glamour, looking to be the first to the poles or to points yet undiscovered. Still others were simply sailors through and through, doing that which they did best — navigating rolling currents and icebound reaches. The Fram, an illustrious Norwegian ship of the time, saw her share of each type of explorer in her three major exploratory voyages. Fridtjof Nansen, who lead the Fram on her maiden expedition, was the scientist forever placing the demands of knowledge before all else. A skillful leader and a brilliant man, he guided the ship and its crew north, where, embedded in the arctic ice, they passed three winters in a slow drift across the top of the world. Otto Sverdrup was next, the sailor driven by a thirst for the voyage and the ship itself. A calm, solid, and careful captain, the Fram traveled, under his leadership, to the northern reaches of Canada, where Sverdrup’s crew surveyed the land and claimed much of it for Norway. Last was Roald Amundsen, the glory-hunter, who, disobeying the wishes of his sponsors and Nansen (his friend and colleague), took the Fram south to Antarctica, hoping to claim the honor of being first to the South Pole.

Regardless of their motives or methods of leadership, all three men made their unique mark on the polar exploration of the time, and the journeys of all are chronicled in Charles W. Johnson’s new book, Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram. The book is exhaustively researched, with the author, who lives in East Montpelier, going so far as to travel to Norway twice in the process of writing it.  The illuminating, fascinating quality of the writing is characterized by lavish detail. Ice Ship is the rare history book that reads like a classic adventure novel, without sacrificing the well-researched, scientific clarity that rings of truth rather than fiction.

In the days of the Fram, polar exploration was a captivating idea, swathed in glamor and prestige. There was a certain darkness to it as well, much like the polar regions themselves — glittering, inspiring, but deadly as well. Death on some godforsaken ice floe was never far away, and far too many explorers simply disappeared into the wilderness, never to return. Johnson, with his rollicking yet highly factual writing style, truly pays tribute both to the glamor and the danger of polar exploration. He writes with near reverence of the larger-than-life figures who sailed with the Fram (though the account of Roald Amundsen is touched with a hint of disapproval at the man’s failings as a leader and general unlikeability), yet manages all the same to spare a moment of solemn recognition for other expeditions, equally as hopeful as those of the Fram, often with the same goals, sometimes not as well-equipped, which ultimately failed, generally dooming many of those involved.

Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram is the kind of book to read by the fire on a cold winter’s night, to give the reader new appreciation for the lack of polar bears and pack ice outside, if nothing else. With that said, Johnson’s book is more than an intriguing tale of bygone times, when adventure was near at hand and glory awaited atop the world. Similarly, it is more than a thoroughly researched biography of three men, or a glorified ship’s log. Ice Ship manages to unite the factual quality of a traditional history book with the sheer drama of a really great story, and the result is worth reading, whether for information or  simply for pleasure.