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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic
By Jennifer Niven
HC, 431 pg. US$24.95/C$36.95
ISBN: 0-7868-6863-5

A journey to the end of the world

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 5, 2004

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the ArcticThe desire to find out what is over the next hill has long been a fetish for human beings. By the dawn of the 20th century much of the world had been explored and mapped, leaving only the most inhospitable terrain as the stage for further exploration. In 1921 a small party ventured to one of those places -- the Arctic -- looking for adventure and finding only death. It's hard to believe that their story, which once gripped the world for several years, has almost been forgotten. It is a story compellingly told by Jennifer Niven in Ada Blackjack: The True Story of Survival in the Arctic.

As bizarre a theory as we might be inclined to believe it today, during the 1920s famed explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson proposed what he called the "Friendly Arctic". Despite being a member of a doomed Arctic expedition a few years earlier, Stefansson believed that the Arctic was no more dangerous than the average city street for those adequately prepared, "a friendly place to live in for the man who used common sense." In an attempt to prove this notion, he put together a small team and sent them off to Wrangel Island, a small island located off the coast of Siberia. With this expedition he hoped to prove that the Arctic was worthy of development and -- known to only a few people -- to claim the island for either Canada or Great Britain.

The crew was composed of Allan Crawford, Fred Maurer, Lorne Knight and Milton Galle. Joining them as a seamstress was Inuit Ada Blackjack, a reluctant member who only went along to raise money to take her son out of an orphanage and get him treatment for his tuberculosis. Not making the trip himself, Stefansson gave command of the expedition to Crawford, a University of Toronto student who had never ventured into the far north. Equipped with six months of provisions and promised a relief ship during the summer of 1922 they were sent on their way.

So confident where they in Stefansson's belief of the Friendly Arctic, one filled with plentiful game throughout the year, that they did little hunting during their first few months on the island. That proved to be a poor decision when a buildup of ice prevented the relief ship from landing with new supplies, party because of Stefansson's inability to raise enough money to send the ship until August. By January 1923, the party was running critically low on food. After an aborted attempt by Knight, who by then was suffering from scurvy, Crawford, Maurer and Galle went off in an attempt to reach Siberia.

Niven then focuses the story on Blackjack. A resident for most of her life of Alaska's mining communities, Blackjack had no experience in Arctic living. With the ravages of scurvy, which Niven chronicles in detail, forcing Knight to stay in bed, Blackjack is forced to learn how to hunt to keep the pair alive. Eventually Knight succumbs and she is left alone to fend for herself, waiting for either the return of Crawford, Maurer and Galle or the long promised supply ship.

Back in the United States Stefansson tries to calm the fears of the men's families who haven't heard word from their sons in two years. He attempts to calm them by telling them that the men are in no danger and that another relief ship will be sent in the summer of 1923. At the same time he attempts to convince the Canadian and British governments to claim Wrangel Island, a move which prompts an angry response by the Soviet Union. To add to his problems, he has difficulty raising the money necessary to send another ship to re-supply the expedition.

By the time a relief ship reaches Wrangel Island, Blackjack is the sole survivor of the expedition. Although occasional reports of white men along the coast of Siberia reach North America, Crawford, Maurer and Galle have long since disappeared, likely dead not long after leaving the island. Blackjack and the men become pawns in a battle by Stefansson to protect his zealous belief in the Friendly Arctic and by his detractors who want to destroy his reputation. Blackjack simply wants to get on with her life after the horrors of Wrangel Island, reclaim her son and live in peace. The vivid imagery Niven paints of the desperate struggle for survival on the island gives way to the less compelling -- though still quite interesting -- story of personal politics surrounding the aftermath.

Although that last third of the book is somewhat less exciting, Ada Blackjack remains a fascinating story. Throughout most of her life Blackjack was reluctant to discuss what happened on Wrangel Island, leaving a sensationalist press, Stefansson and others to use her for their purposes. Showing extraordinary skill in storytelling and research, Niven convincingly brings to life the doomed expedition's tale. Blackjack, Crawford, Knight, Maurer and Galle would be pleased to know that someone as talented as Niven told their story, someone capable of bringing them back to life and restoring their names to us.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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