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The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic…
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The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the… (2010)

by Anthony Brandt

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England spent a lot of time searching for a Northwest Passage for their ships. Brandt covers the gamut of efforts to find it, many of which ended tragically, and some which, miraculously enough, ended with everyone back home in England, although without having found the passage. One of the early attempts that was so incredible as to sound fictional was the 17th-century voyage of Thomas James. He had to winter in the Arctic, and to avoid having his ship crushed by ice or swept away, he and his crew deliberately sunk the ship, then pulled it back up in the spring, repaired it, and sailed it home. Now that's chutzpah.

All the explorers were audacious, but some were poorly equipped to handle the rigors of Arctic exploration. The insistence on doing things the European way instead of learning from the Inuit often resulted in unnecessary deaths. Stubbornness and ethnocentrism blinded the explorers to the fact that the Inuit built igloos and wore furs not because they didn't know any better, but because these were actually great tools for survival. Stubbornness was also a big part of the reason there were so many missions to Canada in the first place. When captains and their crews keep disappearing, dying, or barely limping back home without results, it seems that sane people might start to wonder if finding the passage is even worth it; obviously, it's not going to be easy going even when and if it's found. But the English chose to hang their pride on the project, so sanity didn't enter into the equation.

Many expeditions are discussed in the book, so it can sometimes be hard to keep track of the various names and the timeline. It would also probably be beneficial to familiarize yourself with a map of the area, as there are a lot of bays, straits and inlets described. The book seems like a pretty good overview of the whole endeavor, and it's made me want to read up some more on a couple of the expeditions, particularly John Franklin's, which is talked about at length and has apparently been an inspiration for a number of fictional versions of events. ( )
  ursula | Mar 1, 2014 |
To be fair, Anthony Brandt's "The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage" isn't really a bad book. However, I found it very dull.

I am absolutely mad for polar exploration stories and was surprised that I didn't really enjoy this book at all. Mainly, I think, this book really focused more on administration details instead of the actual adventuring aspect, which is what I enjoy.

This book is really comprehensive and I found myself wading through lots of detail that wasn't interesting to me. After a week and a half to get halfway through the book (and not even to Franklin's ill-fated final expedition) I gave up. ( )
  amerynth | Dec 10, 2013 |
I know quite a lot about polar death, so it's remarkable that this book kept me relatively riveted despite treading familiar ground. It gives some fascinating insights into British imperialism while managing to tie itself to present day issues of global warming--always nice to read a history book that explicitly states its relevance. (I am being slightly facetious with this last comment but I do mean it: I am not a historian, just an interested freelancer, and I appreciate mightily when history is made relevant without bombarding me with a constantly restated thesis. Brandt struck a really nice balance, making a lot of larger connections that illuminated my own [very literature-centric:] experience with the British Empire while expanding my existing knowledge of polar death. Frankenstein is suddenly a lot more interesting when placed in its proper historical context and for that alone I am indebted to Brandt.) ( )
  aliceunderskies | Apr 1, 2013 |
A very readable history of the 19th century British attempts to discover a NorthWest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the northern coast of Canada, through the Arctic ice. The focus of the story is John Franklin who searched for the Passage several times and was lionised by the British public as an intrepid explorer. His failure to return from his last expedition generated a stream of rescue missions both privately and publicly funded through the rest of the century. Brandt is excellent at the geography and the history of exploration. His descriptions of the cold and the privations of the exploring teams adds enormously to our understanding of the implications of such expeditions and to the tensions arising from the rescue missions. His knowledge of 19th century British cultural customs is a little shakier, but does not detract from an overall exciting if ultimately tragic boy's own story. ( )
  pierthinker | Dec 16, 2012 |
Writing about the fate of John Franklin is always difficult. The man failed. Simple as that. But much of it was not his fault. Could a better man have done better? We cannot know.

On the whole, this is a kind biography of a man who had many genuine abilities and equally many weaknesses -- a man who was genuinely kind, genuinely open to new ideas... and genuinely easy to push around. Franklin led one successful and two unsuccessful trips to the Arctic. His naval record was good. He was beloved in Tasmania, where he was governor -- but the civil service hated him.

And, as it turned out, he died before he could know the disaster that faced his final expedition.

This book tries hard to present the latest research and to see both sides. We do not know all we would like to know about Franklin's final expedition. But most of what we do know is here. ( )
  waltzmn | Feb 2, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307263924, Hardcover)

A Q&A with Anthony Brandt

Question: In The Man Who Ate His Boots you tell the rousing and often horrifying story of the search for the Northwest Passage, the holy grail of nineteenth century British exploration. Why did so many people invest such time, energy, and effort in to this search?

Anthony Brandt: There’s no simple answer. In part it had seemed since the 16th century--when the Spanish and the Portuguese were claiming all the easier routes to the Far East--like a peculiarly British mission to find this great unknown route to the East via the north; and after 1815, when the Napoleonic Wars ended with such a decisive British victory and the seas were theirs, the chance to use idle ships and idle seamen to find it became too attractive to resist. The British now thought they could do anything, no matter how difficult, especially at sea. But it was also to some degree the product of one man’s enthusiasm, and that was John Barrow, the powerful second secretary of the Admiralty, who believed in an open, unfrozen, polar sea; and he had an ally in the first lord of the Admiralty, the second Lord Melville, who supported the idea and was able to gather Parliamentary support. The British people were excited by the idea, too, and got behind it.

Question: Was the mission a fool’s errand?

Anthony Brandt: It proved to be so, and there were skeptics from the beginning. But at the time the Arctic was completely unknown. The map was blank above 80 degrees north in all areas, and above 70 degrees north in most. Nobody knew what the Arctic Ocean was like, or whether there even was an Arctic Ocean for that matter. For all they knew Greenland might extend to Asia, and some mapmakers thought it did. Others firmly believed that salt water could not freeze. The Greenland whalers knew better, but they weren’t scientists, they were commercial fishermen, and men like Barrow paid no attention to them. They weren’t gentlemen. In retrospect, then, it certainly seems like a fool’s errand, but life does not happen in retrospect, and what seems foolish now seemed like a noble effort at the time.

Question: Your title refers to John Franklin’s 1819 failed expedition where 11 of the 20 men in the exploration party died of starvation and the survivors were forced to eat their boots! Franklin’s expedition is perhaps the most famous, but there were dozens of missions sent to the Arctic in the first half of the nineteenth century, one failure after another. Each of the commanding officers felt as if he was prepared for the journey ahead, so what was it that doomed these expeditions to failure and death?

Anthony Brandt: The Arctic is intractable. No amount of preparation can ensure a person’s safety in an environment full of so much risk. The margin of survival is extremely narrow in the Arctic, and even small mistakes--the loss of a glove; forgetting to bring sun glasses; the sudden collapse of an ice floe--can kill you, and in a very short time. More of Franklin’s men might have survived in 1821 if he had turned back a week earlier, or even a few days. To survive in the Arctic, one must be very bold; one must also be very cautious.

Question: What has been the legacy of these explorers? Should we remember them as heroes?

Anthony Brandt: Hero is a word that makes me uneasy. One man’s hero is another’s devil. There are multiple sides to every story. I prefer the word courageous. Parry, Franklin, the two Rosses: whatever one thinks of the project they were engaged on, there can be no question of their courage. One holds one’s breath as Lt. Parry picks his way between the ice and the shoreline, half blinded by fog sometimes, hoping the wind doesn’t shift and trap him between an ice floe perfectly capable of turning his ship into splinters and a shoreline composed of solid rock. These men were often religious, and one can’t help but think that they would almost have to be, to do what they did.

Question: The Man Who Ate His Boots is full of eccentric characters, many of whom bicker with each other in highly entertaining public battles. If you had to pick one, which historical character was most fun for you to bring to life?

Anthony Brandt: I suppose egotistical, cranky, battleworn, and almost always wrong John Ross was my favorite sailor on this trip. For me he gave the stereotype of the British eccentric new levels of meaning, and it was always fun to watch him mess things up. The fact that he had once been run through with a bayonet added a bit of spice to his character, and his pamphlet wars with various enemies were always entertaining. But for sheer love I'll opt for Lady Jane, John Franklin's wife and one of the most extraordinary women of her time, surely the most intrepid woman traveler of the first half of the 19th century. I keep hoping someone will write a new biography of her. I got carried away a few times and devoted too much space to her and had to cut back. I think the memorial to her husband in Westminster Abbey should really be a memorial to her.

Question: Thanks to global warming, in the summer of 2007, the Northwest Passage opened to ship traffic. What can you tell us about the future of the Northwest Passage?

Anthony Brandt: I wish I knew, so that I could invest in it. But, joking aside, the Passage was open in 2007 and 2008, but not in 2009. I doubt that it will be open reliably every summer for a while, perhaps a decade. But inevitably, if warming continues at the present rate, I don’t see how it won’t open every summer by 2020, and that will cut thousands of miles off the present sea routes to the Pacific from the Atlantic, and vice versa, reducing costs for shippers all over the world. Is this a good thing? Obviously, only in the short term, and only for shippers--and possibly oil and natural gas producers, if they find as much oil and natural gas as they think exists in the Arctic Basin. Already the Northwest Passage is a tourist attraction of sorts, and a Russian icebreaker makes the trip every summer with paying passengers. Maybe they’ll take me along on one of these trips. I’d like to see it, if I can sleep in a warm cabin and eat good food while I’m there.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:31 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Brandt tells the fascinating whole story of the search for the Northwest Passage, from its beginnings early in the age of exploration through its development into a British national obsession to the final sordid, terrible descent into scurvy, starvation, and cannibalism.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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