Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

At any given time, I am usually reading a combination of new and old materials.  I get books from a variety of sources, and that means I sometimes go back to things I didn't read when they were first published.  Shipwreck was published in 1998, and it is from my personal To Be Read pile.

I am newly interested in well-written nonfiction for middle school and teen readers.  After the past couple of years of amazing nonfiction and the creation of the Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award, I am indulging in more nonfiction this year than I have ever read in my life.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is about Shackleton's third exploratory trip to Antarctica in 1915.  He intended to be the first explorer to ever cross the continent successfully.  What actually happened to the expedition makes for one of the most dramatic, incredible survival stories ever written.

Once Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, began to approach the continent, the ship was trapped in ice for more than 9 months and the Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice pack.  When the expedition abandoned the ship, they had no choice but to cross the ice in search of open water to launch their boats.  The men painstakingly dragged the boats (barely big enough to carry themselves and a few crucial stores) a quarter mile at a time across miles and miles of ice.  The men found a tiny island on which to shelter using compass and chronometer, and most of the crew stayed there on the ice while Shackleton embarked on a desperate rescue mission across 800 miles of open ocean.  The most amazing thing about this expedition is that every man aboard the ship survived.

Armstrong's method of telling this story is factual without going overboard.  She allows the dramatic facts to speak for themselves.  Armstrong uses great descriptive phrases to bring the realities of this expedition to life.  Speaking of the ice the men were beginning to cross, she describes it as if a "giant hand had smashed down onto the frozen face of the deep and broken it into a million shards" (p. 52).  This really connects readers to something they may not be able to visualize on their own.

The photographs that Armstrong chose for this book are as striking as the facts she relays.  Armstrong includes information in her narrative about how these amazing photographs survived the expedition.  Many of those photographs were taken on glass plates, and Hurley, the ship's photographer, had to leave many of the glass plates behind when they abandoned the Endurance.  It is amazing, considering the hardship that these photos depict, that the images survived at all.  The images also help underscore the extreme agony these men endured.

Finally, I'd like to consider this book as a work of nonfiction.  Armstrong tells the story in a narrative style that flows well.  She uses the men's journals of the trip to bring a first person perspective to the expedition, and there is dialogue incorporated into the narrative which must be taken from historical sources.  However, there are no footnotes to indicate which sources are used, which is a drawback when using the book for assignments or research papers.  There is a strong bibliography for readers to follow, including research journals, at the end of the book.  The story itself is so compelling that readers will return to its details.
While this book is not for the faint of heart, it is an exciting adventure story.  In 1915, many of the methods and equipment were much more primitive, so it is truly incredible these men lived to tell the tale.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, Jennifer Armstrong.  Scholastic, 1998.  Personal collection.

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