Feature

The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration by Alec Wilkinson

With economy and polish, Wilkinson tells how on July 11, 1897, Andrée and two compatriots set off for the North Pole in a 1.5-ton, 97-foot-tall hydrogen-filled balloon.

(Knopf, $26)

“For the 19th-century explorer, romantic notions often trumped sanity,” said Stephen J. Lyons in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Of the 1,000 men who attempted to reach the North Pole before 1900, none succeeded, and 751 lost their lives. Among them, notes Alec Wilkinson in this “bone-chilling” new book, was a 42-year-old Swedish dreamer and futurist named S.A. Andrée. Even among the ranks of eccentric adventurers, Andrée stood out. A tall, large-nosed man with a post in the Swedish patent office and a deep interest in geomagnetism, Andrée observed that most attempts to reach the pole failed because ships were wrecked on ice floes. It would be better to travel, he surmised, in a balloon.

“You’ve got to admire Andrée’s moxie—even as you wince at the fate-tempting presumption,” said Peter Lewis in Salon.com. Though many dismissed his plan as a stunt, Andrée wasn’t capricious: He calculated that it would take 43 hours to make the 600-mile journey to the pole from Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. So confident was he that he’d succeed, he even packed a tuxedo for a celebratory post-expedition landing in Alaska or Asia. With economy and polish, Wilkinson relates how on July 11, 1897, Andrée and two compatriots set off in a 1.5-ton, 97-foot-tall hydrogen-filled balloon. The craft proved singularly unequal to the challenge, though, bumping along the arctic ice for 300 miles before crashing.

Wilkinson doesn’t pretend to know precisely how the explorers died, said Sara Wheeler in The New York Times. Thirty-three years after their disappearance, the bear-eaten remains of the men were found on an island 300 miles from the pole, along with photographs and unfinished diaries that recounted the crew’s travails through early autumn. Wilkinson “writes with insight and flair,” artfully weaving a history of Arctic exploration into his central tale. His “prose style suits the spare polar landscape.” Better yet, he understands that the value of polar stories lies not in lists of equipment or provisions but “in our endless love of discovery and the drama of being human.”

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