April snowstorms ripped through Tahoe City while I read Endurance by Alfred Lansing (published 1959). Snow spit sideways outside and I wrapped myself in a down comforter, down jacket, sipped tea by a raging fire, and read about the coldest expedition known to man.
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his twenty-eight man crew sailed to the South Pole on an Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The average temperature stayed well below zero. Men on the ship called Endurance wore wool trousers and slept in bags lined with deer fur, which eventually rotted into soggy slime. They rationed food by the ounce, and the distress inflicted upon their bodies from terrifying elements and blubbery seal diets is insane.
I couldn’t put the book down. By page seventy, they were abandoning ship, pouring onto the ice because that was easier living?
“They were castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world,” Lansing writes, and had this not been a true story, I would not believe the unreal capacities of human beings. Actual diary entires from men on the Endurance aided Lansing in mastering the tricky balance between defining nautical terms without turning good seaworthy language into a how-to guide. His writing deftly allows perpetually land-locked non-sailors, like myself, to feel the sways of the boat by using terminology that fills me equally with authority and dread. When the character “Wild turned aft to the propeller shaftway,” Lansing assumes I know what that means, giving me ownership and encouraging my understanding with only occasional helpful explanations. For example, on the stern of this ice-worthy ship “[…] was a sheathing from stem to stem of greenheart, a wood so heavy it weighs more than solid iron and so tough that it cannot be worked with ordinary tools.”
Overall, the language of Endurance is simply written. Lansing states fact after fact, one horrible dilemma after another. Winds change, ocean swells uplift ice floes, men work or rest or entertain themselves and it’s all written flatly. This consistency of language creates a tone within the story that mimics the stripped down concerns of each castaway. With every miserable moment simple sentences like, “The sea anchor was gone” are so impacting that any attempt on Lansing’s part to decorate the story would be inappropriate.
“They made a pitiable site – three little boats, packed with the odd remnants of what had once been a proud expedition, bearing twenty-eight suffering men in one final, almost ludicrous bid for survival.”
That word, “ludicrous,” sticks to my brain like tacky flour. Because Lansing uses adjectives so sparingly, when he does the added emotion is breathtaking. Lansing achieves the feelings of the crew, their desperate yet inevitable determination with one unexpected and well-placed adjective. Their survival is ludicrous, but within that word there is a crazy deal of hope. Reader and sailor alike cling to it. Moments of “sublime solidity” and “blood-warm bowels” not only show Lansing’s efficient writing, but they quickly convey the emotional state of the crew without being heavy-handed.
The thought of ocean spray on already salt-blistered skin makes me dread the open water and wonder about my own limits. Lansing’s account of Sir Ernest Shackelton and his men is one of foreboding endurance. I do use that word with irony. The sheer fact of the story can only be described by Shackleton’s own family motto: “Fortitudine vincimus – ‘By endurance we conquer.’” After reading this book, nothing can be said more certainly about the man named Sir Ernest Shackleton, a man whose will goes beyond the conceivable and whose determination speaks to the strength within all humankind, than the fact that he endures still thanks to the simple language and brilliantly written novel by Alfred Lansing. I recommend Endurance to anyone interested in understanding exactly what the human condition is and what we can endure.Notes: If you enjoy Lansing’s novel, read Melinda Mueller’s collection of poems about Shackleton and his men, What The Ice Gets. And if you’re still hankering to comprehend how men could do what Shackleton did, visit the James Caird Society at http://www.jamescairdsociety.com/.