This is a medium-length re-telling as ‘faction’ of Roald Amundsen’s journey to the South Pole in 1911-12.
The book begins with Amundsen’s arrival back in Hobart, having reached the Pole ahead of the British expedition led by Robert Scott. No drums and flags for him, just a suspicious hotel clerk unwilling to give this unkempt stranger at the desk a room with what he most desires – a bath. The story proceeds to give an account of the year-long journey with its endless treks back and forth between the base and the all-important depots set up at points along the route. It describes in a few chapters the hours before the Norwegian flag is planted at the southernmost ‘tip’ of the world.
This is not a book for the fainthearted. The author, Joanna Grochowicz, does not avoid describing the intimate details and unpleasant realities of life in the Antarctic wastes, from body odours and stinking socks to an entire heel lost to frostbite and the trials of haemorrhoids. Far worse than this is the fate of the dogs, who are systematically shot or bludgeoned to death as they weaken, then given as food for other dogs and for the cook to serve up as stew for the evening meal. There are tensions among the men. And there is the character of Amundsen himself, haunted by thoughts of Scott, as fanatical and self-sufficient as his photograph suggests, driven not by patriotism or the desire for fame but by the necessity of earning money to fund future expeditions.
Yet there are many moments of humanity, excitement and poetry. Nearing the ‘Devil’s Glacier’, the men are struck by the panorama of a huge ice-mountain: The giant presides over a sea of enormous glaciers which tumble down in horrible disarray. The largest of them stretches right across their path as far as the eye can see. Gnarled and violently misshapen, it’s like a dragon’s tail on an unimaginable scale.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ says Amundsen, half in awe, half in dread. ‘It looks like someone’s lifted the continent above their head and smashed it down in anger.’
Not everyone will ‘enjoy’ this book, and responses will differ according to a reader’s disposition. However, the story is so well and bravely told that it could not fail to leave a vivid impression in any reader’s mind. I would certainly include it in any secondary school library.
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