The following review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN, EDITOR OF BOOKPLEASURES
Not many of us have ever heard of an island that is generally barren, frozen and rocky through most of the year located in the Arctic Ocean between the East Siberian Sea and the Chukotsk Sea-Wrangel Island.
In 1921, a Canadian explorer, Vihjalmur Stefansson, sent four young men, only one an actual British subject, and one Eskimo woman, Ada Blackjack, to Wrangel Island. The objective was to claim the island for Great Britain, and to prove that it was possible to survive in this “godforsaken” place, notwithstanding its cruel climate and terrain.
The original venture was only to be a vanguard for a grand and elaborate further British expedition that was to join the group the following summer. Unbeknown to the four young men, the expedition was never approved or supported by the British Government, and Stefansson never joined the group the following summer. In fact, Stefansson was more interested in self-aggrandizement with his lecturing tours and writings than he was with the welfare of the group.
Jennifer Niven, author of Ada Blackjack A Story Of Survival In The Arctic, has brilliantly pieced together, through her extensive research of diaries, journals, letters, unpublished manuscripts, papers that were written by the four young men, their families, and the Eskimo woman, Ada Blackjack, a vivid picture as to what had transpired, while these brave, naïve, and inexperienced individuals lived on the island.
What is so tragic about the entire expedition is that only one individual survived, Ada Blackjack. Three members, due to a shortage of food, left the party for the Siberian coast, and the fourth one died of scurvy, while being under the compassionate care of Ada Blackjack. As for Stefansson, he managed to more or less protect his reputation, while casting the blame of this disastrous and ill- prepared venture on others.
If there is a lesson in Ada Blackjack A Story Of Survival In The Arctic it is that sometimes fear combined with religious faith turns out to be your savior. Although, Ada Blackjack may have initially feared hunting, as well as living with a sick person, whom she was forced to care for, it was these fears that ultimately contributed to her survival. Was Ada Blackjack brave? When asked to comment, she would say, “Brave? I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”
It was probably this hope that continued to help her survive after her return from Wrangel Island, as her life was filled with turmoil, poverty, sadness, slander, illness, and constant escape from a taunting society.
Niven’s prose is truly a remarkable, absorbing and powerful read. In two words, it is irresistibly readable. You are immediately hooked by the author’s ease of recapturing the intensity and history of the expedition, and the vivid dialogue of the story’s principal characters. You are also taken in by the way Niven has admirably focused a great deal of her story on the first Eskimo heroine, Ada Blackjack.