Hardship, Heroism and Heartbreak
A memoir about a family member and a historic event offers a double burden to its author: that of dual responsibility to the family member and to wider interest in the event. When the relative is a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the Antarctic, you’re staring down quite the load to distribute.
Three members of Adrian Raeside’s family — two great-uncles and his grandfather, Sir Charles (Silas) Wright — were on Scott’s Terra Nova South Pole expedition, and Raeside grew up in New Zealand steeped in the lore of it. Stories rattled around him, and in an effort to resolve some of the discrepancies he was exposed to in history books and images, he excavated papers and diaries that came into his possession from the expedition and admirably charts his grandfather’s story in Return to Antarctica.
Raeside’s book is a return voyage he undertakes both physically and historically to uncover what happened during Scott’s attempt to capture the South Pole for England.
It’s important to understand the time period when that expedition took place, and he does a comprehensive job of recreating this era for neophyte polar readers.
Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expeditions had just returned to England, in 1909, having failed to capture the South Pole. Many nations were making gung-ho traipses to the Pole, some more organized than others. The unconquered Pole held a potent allure that fired up explorers and the flag-waving nations behind them.
The folklore of polar expedition tends to settle on the man leading the charge. These single names become planted in our imaginations as mighty individuals plowing through unfriendly terrain to polar victory.
This omits the boatload of other people who collectively powered the likes of Scott.
Raeside’s delve reminds us that any attempt on a Pole or summit is never a single-handed affair. The passing of time allows space for such individual stories to receive the oxygen they deserve.
The pendulum of opinion has always swung on Scott. His instant-hero status gave way to a critique of his conduct, and in this decade opinion has again softened. By this account, Scott was a moody, unpredictable dictator of a leader whose British-Navy disciplinarian approach clashed with the patient scientists.
He needlessly risked his men’s lives, wouldn’t listen to anyone and didn’t learn from his mistakes. He was also a determined visionary with the competitive hunger that made him and his team blindly gallant to the final frozen breath.
More importantly, who was Silas Wright?
Charles Seymour Wright (1887-1975), referred to as “Silas” throughout, was born in Toronto. After finishing his education at Upper Canada College he became fixated on research and developing a tool to measure radiation.
As Scott was putting together his second expedition, Wright met Douglas Mawson, who had just returned from Shackleton’s failed one. Mawson’s descriptions inspired him to write to Scott “applying for the position of physicist.”
Scott politely turned him down.
Griff Taylor, another Raeside relative, had been accepted on the expedition as geologist. He told Wright to go to Scott’s office in London and appeal to him. The two walked from Cambridge to London with nothing but 12 hard-boiled eggs to eat!
Scott relented, and later said: “One of the greatest successes is Wright. He is very thorough and absolutely ready for anything . . . Nothing ever seems to worry him, and I can’t imagine he ever complained of anything in his life.”
The vast number of characters and the matter of their not all going in the same direction provides a mighty challenge to the writer — and readers — of this book. The expanse of the tale can sometimes overwhelm a reader trying to snowshoe his or her way through, with mounting perplexity over who is a man, which is a pony and “Was that ice axe driven into the head of a pony or a man to prevent a more painful death by leaping killer whale beside ice floe?”
The book can induce moments of brain-freeze in which it is necessary to flip back to the crew list to effect a thaw. Raeside has inserted helpful, catchy text boxes; the trouble is, so many people were flinging themselves in the region of the South Pole at the time that there are too many text boxes.
Then there are the animals. Between the named ponies and the savage starving dogs and the relationship of men to individual ponies and the reduction in the penguin population, the narrative can digress into overwhelming anecdotes about dogs falling down wells, dogs’ sleeping arrangements, murderous dog attacks on ponies and decisions over which pony to eat or not eat.
Again, man and pony began to blur, the room began to swim and I was back consulting the crew list.
Bested by Amundsen
An awful lot happens when you’re trying to reach the South Pole, and then not much happens when you’re pacing yourself for conditions to be right for the final leg to the Pole. So the wild adventures and the panic of ponies leaping from ice floe to ice floe is intercut with unbelievable physical pain, the misery of the men and the endless winding months of boredom and monotony as they settled into their fate.
The unique detail Raeside has collected here, by virtue of his access to firsthand accounts and documents, offers a deeper, much more humane (rather than heroic) look at the whole episode. Ultimately, it was a first-class effort only to be pipped at the Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s nabbing it just before them.
The conclusion of this effort was pure and unmitigated disappointment. The men had to walk home and meet their end, starving, exhausted and destroyed by scurvy, surrendered on the vicious landscape that had held so much promise for them.
Raeside’s approach (informed by his years of experience as editorial cartoonist at Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper) is flexible. This is no dry historic nor simple hero retelling — it’s a highly accessible melange. He uses almost a scrapbook approach that includes funky line drawings, photography and PowerPoint-style information boxes.
His grandfather’s experience on Scott’s journey, culled from Wright’s memoir and papers, is buttressed by a clipped first-person narrative of his own journey to the South Pole in December 2008.
Raeside enlightens us on the current state of the preserved huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds and on less enticing spots like Inexpressible Island, where the Northern Party survived a winter in an ice cave.
Somehow, the description of what the men left in their trail all these years later and the image of them huddled together is nearly more riveting than the high-action descriptions of drowning ponies, feet falling off with the cold and getting beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian.
It’s the reduction of the massive down to the ordinary daily steps — the idea that great, brave polar explorers have to open a tin of pemmican, need to use the toilet, disagree regularly and quickly run out of reading material — that appeals and engages.
Raeside’s irreverent and humorous tone charms, for the most part, but his prose is fluid more than solid.
It’s a wonder he didn’t employ more of his cartooning talents here. I hope he has a graphic novel, especially for younger readers, in the works to complement this enlightening and flexible book.
Vancouver writer Anakana Schofield reviewed young-adult novel by Jocelyn Brown last weekend.