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SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD Review
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SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD, written by Jennifer Armstrong, is a gripping tale of Sir Ernest Henry Shackelton’s expedition in the southernmost part of the earth. It is a true story of adventure, fortitude, and courage portrayed through an absorbing story and captivating photographs.

 

The purpose of Shackelton’s trip was “to cross the Antarctica from sea to sea, securing for the British flag the honor of being the first carried across the South Polar Continent” (p. 9). Shackelton and his crew of 27 men sailed the ship Endurance, which was specially built to withstand the extremely cold temperatures, to the Arctic Circle. Before they reached Antarctica, however, the unusually early onset of winter caused the Endurance to become frozen in the ice pack which surrounds the continent. They left Great Britain in August of 1914. On January 19, 1915, the Endurance was frozen in ice, less than 100 miles from Antarctica. The crew was forced to abandon their ship when it was crushed in the ice. On August 30, 1916, the crew was finally rescued from their desolate camp which they had managed to create on Elephant Island. Amazingly, every man survived.

 

Jennifer Armstrong’s attention to detail, extensive bibliography, and reproduced photographs from those taken by the actual photographer on board the Endurance all lend credence to her tale.

 

The book begins with a striking photograph of the ship locked into the ice. The stark lines of the ship’s rigging outlined with the photographer’s flash against the black sky with huge rough chunks of ice in the foreground is such an unusual picture that it draws the reader into the book. This is followed by a photograph of the crew, a list of their names and the positions they held, architectural drawings of each level of the ship, and a map of their actual course. Armstrong also includes a descriptive account of conditions in Antarctica, immediately drawing the reader into the story. The rest of the book is a chronological account of events interspersed with more than 40 photographs actually taken on the journey. All the photos are, of course, in black and white, which adds to the historical nature of the book. The captions of the photographs are descriptive enough that, if the reader were to ignore the text altogether, it would still be a captivating book. A useful index of major points of the story is found at the back.

 

The cover of the book is white, denoting the landscape of the setting of the story, and there is a sepia photograph of men pulling a longboat over the ice. Such an unusual scene draws the reader before the cover is even opened. The chapter titles are sans serif, making them stand out, while the text is in a serif type, making it easier to read. Nautical compass symbols on the first page of each chapter as well as the dashed arrows on each page pointing downward, add to the feeling of the book                

 

Armstrong’s writing is clear, detailed, and interspersed with accounts from the logs of the seamen. Describing the weeks before the Endurance succumbed to the pressure of the ice, she wrote:

 

And the on October 18, a misty, gray day, the ice began pressing in again on both sides of the ship.

 

The ship began to rise to the pressure that was squeezing it up and out of the ice. Suddenly, Endurance rolled over onto the port side, and everything that wasn’t nailed down slid, slithered, and crashed against the bulwark. Dogs and men all went head over heels in a mass of howling confusion. Some of the men prepared to jump as the ship leaned onto its side, but Endurance came to rest at an angle of thirty degrees to port. The pressure stopped again, and the Boss ordered the men to restore order to the jumbled ship. The crew ate dinner that night propped up against the decks like men seated in a grandstand, with their plates in their laps. At eight o’clock, the ship suddenly righted itself again and floated free. Endurance had survived another attack.

 

The reader will learn much about seamanship from reading this book. There is a particularly interesting account of how navigators know where they are in the middle of the ocean. By today’s standards, the Shackelton expeditions methods seem crude at best. This lesson in navigation only accentuates the men’s dire predicament.

 

The tale of the Endurance, its crew’s desperate fight for survival, and Shackelton’s unerring style of leadership is sure to capture the interest of both children and adults.

 

Armstrong, Jennifer. 1998. SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN: 0375810498.