NOTICE - there are two reviews here. D. L.
Pool, Beekman H., POLAR EXTREMES : The World of Lincoln Ellsworth. University of Alaska Press. Photo illustrated, some maps 286 pp + Bibliography + index. Cloth $45.00 Paper $24.95
Lincoln Ellsworth lost his mother when he was eight-years-old, leaving him and his beloved sister to be raised by a father as distant and cold as any Polar region. The only thing James Ellsworth had going for him as a father was his money. In spite of the Depression the family fortune continued to thrive.
The little boy grew up to be something of a mystic and a determined lover of wild places from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic and then down to the Antarctic. The North Pole was the place to be, or rather the place everyone wanted to be in the 1920s. Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, and Richard Byrd were the main contestants in the race to fly over the Pole. Lincoln entered by donating money to Amundsen who was plagued, like most explorers, by a lack of money. Ships, airplanes, seasoned pilots like Floyd Bennett, Carl Ben Eielson, or Bernt Balchen and crews are all expensive. Ellsworth joined the expedition and discovered, although the objective wasn’t reached, that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
His fortune must have been the envy of the other candidates to be first over the top of the world, that diversion that entertained the rest of the earth at the time. No lecture tours or demeaning begging visits to companies; just find what you need and order it, pulling out the checkbook when it arrives. (Even the Norwegian hero, Fridtjof Nansen’s, sturdy ship Fram was named for the automotive parts company.)
He was also incredibly fortunate to have Sir Hubert Wilkins, a noted Arctic explorer himself, as his quartermaster in the Antarctic, leaving Lincoln able to make visits to the family castle in Switzerland or take a safari in Africa or perhaps plunge into the jungles in South America.
Interest and money put Ellsworth in the big leagues; in 1926 he, Amundsen, and Nobile attempted an dirigible flight that ran into trouble, not only not reaching the goal but leading to an enormous battle over who the actual leader was. Europe was readying for war and Italy, England, and Norway were all vying for status. Even the United States was drawn in, particularly in the Antarctic discoveries.
Several other attempts were also unsuccessful, but finally, a section of unknown Antarctica was flown over by Ellsworth and his pilot and success was achieved. Lincoln had accomplished something on his own, although Wilkins had done the logistics and hiring.
Ellsworth’s problem was not his physical strength or bravery, both of which he displayed repeatedly, but somehow he never gained the stature he craved. After a taste of world fame, he wanted more. There’s also more than a whiff of his father’s business sense here. He had paid for the dirigible or airplane or ship and he wanted credit. This petulance when he didn’t receive major notice is likely his least attractive trait.
In spite of the careful research, quite readable writing, excellent editing, and a good selection of photographs, Ellsworth, after all the work, comes across as a spoiled rich man with far too little expected of him. However, for the student of the Polar mania, this will be a valuable work. The inner circle feuds of mountainous egos, the backbiting, spying, and general polite warfare that even involved governments, is highly entertaining. Pool is to be congratulated for sorting through mountains of documents and giving us a clear view of complicated issues.
After all this lively gossip, it is a shame Ellsworth himself was basically a boring man.
BOOK REVIEW - ALASKANA
Hayes, Charles Douglas, PORTALS IN A NORTHERN SKY. Autodidactic Press. Hardbound $24.95
Show me a person who isn’t interested in time travel, whizzing through history, checking out dinosaurs and rumbling volcanoes, being an interested bystander (speaking perfect archaic French, of course) at Joan of Arc’s roast or the Founding Fathers of the United States when they were foundlings, or even shooting Hitler when he was beginning his murderous career, and I’ll show you someone under two years of age.
Hayes has combined a discovery that enables anyone with a computer to look anywhere in past time with stories of various people and their life journeys to Alaska. There is a scientist, a Texas cop, a Wall Street broker, a young woman who is born again and again, and a mysterious philosophical mentor to guide the policeman.
Covered wagon days, the Klondike, and present time whip us back and forth. It’s a restless book, but there’s one certainty. The reader will be treated to long philosophical treatises and literary discussions full of words like “archetypal” and speaking of such as Melville as “...a great novelist and also everyman when it comes to exploring the western ideology of success and achievement.” Gosh, I never thought of that.
“Knowledge, wisdom, and authenticity aren’t attributes that lie within us awaiting [okay, so the book could have used an editor] for some mysterious guru to show us the truth within ourselves, and yet that’s precisely what millions of people believe. No, my friend, Nietzsche was right: these thing exist far above us.” These pronouncements seem to take place in a car. It’s a long way to Alaska from Texas, folks, and it just got longer.
The author has written several books on the value of self-education. Perhaps he should go back to non-ficition. His novel is nicely summed up by the reaction of a top scientific group that was given bad news. “They had sat for several hours without all that much to say.”