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It's an account of the thwarted Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and his crew on their ship the Endurance. It opens in dramatic fashion, at the point where the stranded survivors realize that their long ice-bound ship is being crushed, and the official abandon-ship order is given. The description of the dying ship is riveting, from quivers to anguished outcries, and "most agonizingly for the men were the times when she seemed a huge creature suffocating and gasping for breath, her sides heaving against the strangling pressure."
The book then shifts back to the formation of the expedition, with some colorful accounts of the various personnel, from Shackleton himself to an unexpected stowaway, a young Welshman who'd been smuggled aboard by a friend. [When his presence was revealed to Shackleton, Shackleton gave him a merciless lecture, finishing with "if we run out of food and anyone has to be eaten, you will be first" - a bit of a twinkle in the eye for that last bit, after which the youth was forgiven and assigned to a job in the galley.]
The book as a whole is lively and colorful, and relies extensively on quotes from the surviving diaries of many of the crew, as well as some interviews; all in all, it made me feel as if I were along for the ride, experiencing the drama as well as the tedium of waiting, and the fellowship as well as the maddening personality clashes (there were fewer of those on this expedition than on Scott's last trip - Shackleton seems to have been an expert at choosing people who would work well together, and in making adjustments to assignments to reduce the inevitable chafing). In these days of instant communication and satellite GPS, it's hard to imagine being trapped in a place where one could not get word in or out, and had to rely on tedious and time-consuming readings to work out an approximate position. They were aware of the possibilities of traveling via drift-ice; in fact, a brief and nightmarish attempt at hauling their boats and goods over ice-humps by sledge taught them that they could make much better mileage by simply camping on the ice and waiting for winds to blow the ice pack. But that kind of wait-and-see method can take a terrible toll on the emotions. Another indication of Shackleton's leadership is that not only did he make difficult choices such as "wait" rather than "push on at any cost", but he managed his crew to keep them from going off the rails (with only a few minor exceptions).
Their plight was so hopeless that it is amazing that they just kept trying; if I'd been there I'd have been tempted to just curl up in a ball and go quietly to sleep. Heck, if they'd known when the ship finally sank what their future travels would involve (but without knowing that they'd survive), they might all have given up, it was that difficult. Camping on ice floes that could - and did - split underneath them without warning, at the mercy of the wind and weather, their only hope of rescue being to manage to reach a tiny island in battered, much-repaired boats, through some of the worst seas in the world...
[While Shackleton is famed for the miraculous survival of his entire expedition, that's not the whole story; at the same time that Shackleton and his men were struggling to survive after their ship was crushed by the ice, there was another team on the other side of Antarctica with plans to lay supply depots for Shackleton's proposed crossing of the continent. But that expedition ran into troubles of its own, and didn't fare quite as well; see Shackleton's Forgotten Men.]
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