You can't really fail with a book about the Endurance. Although Ernest Shackleton's attempt to make the first Trans-Antarctic crossing barely made it out of base camp, his expedition has gone into the history books as one of the great epics of polar travel. Endurance left England in August 1914 and reached the pack-ice off Antarctica in January the following year. It sank in November, crushed by the weight of the ice, leaving Shackleton and his 27 men stranded in one of the most desolate areas of the world with no hope of rescue. Undaunted, Shackleton led his team to the edge of the ice, dragging three open life-boats that had been salvaged from the Endurance every step of the way. They then sailed to Elephant Island, a remote uninhabited outcrop of rock, where they lived off penguins and seagull. By April 1916, Shackleton realised there was no chance of them being spotted by a passing ship and he and five men set sail in the open-decked 20-foot boat, the James Caird, across 650 miles of the stormiest seas of the southern oceans for South Georgia. After narrowly surviving being shipwrecked on the reefs surrounding the western coast of South Georgia, Shackleton then proceeded to make the first-ever crossing of the mountainous island before reaching the sanctuary of the whaling station at Stromness. And it was Shackleton, in person, who led the rescue mission to Elephant Island to pick up the rest of his men. Miraculously, all 28 men survived.
Alfred Lansing's book, first published in 1957, tells it as it was. He draws heavily on the diaries and other first-person memoirs of those involved, and he writes with both style and pace. As such it is the classic tale of derring-do. What Lansing misses, though, is the social context. He provides little sense of history; in August 1914, when the Endurance left England, World War One was starting. By the time he returned home two years later, thousands of young men of his generation were lying dead on the battlefields of the Somme. The contrast is almost unbearable but Lansing makes nothing of it. Similarly he does not explain how someone like Scott, whose South Pole expedition several years earlier had been an unmitigated disaster of incompetence and bad planning, should go down in British history as one of our all-time heroes, while Shackleton, whose exploits were indeed truly heroic, has lived for so long in Scott's shadow. --John Crace