What’s the point of reading a book when you already know the ending? Rarely is a story so compelling and unbelievable that it couldn’t past muster as a work of fiction. No one would believe the odysseys captured in the pages of Endurance if they weren’t true. The fact that 28 men sailed into the heart of the Antarctic ice pack, had their ship crushed in heavy flows, fought off the elements and madness for more than a year existing on the ice, and all escaped and lived to tell about it is, quite frankly, beyond belief.
But it happened, and it’s a mind-numbing story recounted quite matter-of-factly by Alfred Lansing in Endurance, a 353-page telling of a 1915 expedition led by British explorer Edward Shackleton. Shackleton and his men had hopes to be the first people to transverse the southern continent from one end to the other on foot.
The expedition never came close to that goal.
Their ship, the Endurance, became encased in a heavy ice flow on its approach to the Antarctic shores, and from there the crew started a long struggle for daily survival and, ultimately, rescue more than 16 months later. The book’s title obviously plays off the ships name, but adeptly captures the sheer willpower and fortitude it took those unfortunate souls to survive the Antarctic winter, brave harrowing gales and breaking seas, and eventually make a long-shot sail for the closest civilization more than 500 miles from where they marooned.
In true journalistic form, Lansing reports on the minutiae of the castaways daily lives without embellishment. He adequately captures the monotony of the sailors’ daily lives trapped on the ice, weighed heavy by the realities that they may never see solid land again much less make it home alive. He does it in dead-pan prose drawing off the detailed diaries maintained by some of the crew and first-hand interviews with some of the survivors still living at the time.
The story of Shackleton’s doomed journey needs no fancy words or dramatic writing, and Lansing’s journalistic approach actually adds gravity to the situations faced by the men stranded at the bottom of the globe. If the book seems to drag at times, it’s only because it’s caught up in the dull day-to-day rhythm of idol hands waiting for a chance of escape or rescue from their icy tomb.
Originally published in 1959, few new insights could be said about Lansing’s novel. Although it did not gain widespread popularity until after his death, in the decades that followed Endurance has become widely regarded as a comprehensive telling of not only Shackleton’s journey, but the stories of the roughly two dozen men who followed him to the edges of the world.
It’s a read that’s easy to pick up and not put down. The short chapters, usually 5-6 pages each and broken into six sections, make it easy to pick up where you left off whenever life interrupts. In the end I found myself thinking of the minutiae of my own daily life, much like the men in the book just biding time until an opportunity presented itself, and wondering if my existence will prove half as interesting — or half as brutish — as theirs did more than a century ago.
Such is the power of a well told story, and the ambitions of men.