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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in…

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic (2003)

by Jennifer Niven

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Jennifer Niven calls Ada Blackjack a hero. I don't think I would go that far. She didn't save anyone's life and her heroic deeds were limited to having the courage and resourcefulness to survive her unlikely predicament physically unscathed. I say unlikely because what would a impoverished and divorced 23 year old Inuit woman (a rumored prostitute) be doing on a potentially illegal expedition in the wilds of an Arctic island with four young white men and a cat? Desperate to find a husband and to make enough money to care for her oft-ill son, Ada signs on a seamstress with explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson's mission to colonize barren Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia. Using the theory of squatters' rights, Stafansson sent four young men and six months worth of supplies to plant the British flag on what he thought was unclaimed land. He only sent them with six months of supplies because he was sure they could survive off the land once they had exhausted their stores. What could possibly go wrong in the "friendly" Arctic?
It's not a plot spoiler to say that Ada was the only human to make it out alive (and yes, the cat survives, too). But, here's where the story gets interesting. Stefansson vacillates between wanting to take all the credit for Ada's survival and pretending he's never heard of the woman. It's what happens after the rescue that becomes the bigger story.

As an aside, I love the process of discovery. While Niven was researching her first book, The Ice Master she discovered Nome, Alaska native Ada Blackjack. Ada's adventure intrigued Niven enough to prompt her to dig into Blackjack's life story and ultimately, write a memoir about her expedition with four white men (and a cat) to Wrangel Island. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Aug 6, 2018 |
When you read about the hardships of another person, there really are no words to describe the impact of that book. Everything seems trite and shallow. This is such a book. All that I can say is that I am amazed at the naivete of people of that era and also the callousness with which these explorers were treated.... Friendly arctic indeed.... ( )
  Emmie217 | Jun 27, 2018 |
Sometimes two is not better than one.

This book tries to do two things. One is to tell the story of the 1921-1923 Wrangel Island expedition in which the Inuit woman Ada Blackjack participated. The other, and the primarily one, is to tell Ada's own life story.

These two really do need to be reviewed separately. The story of the Wrangel Island expedition is, I think, very good; it explains how it was conceived, how the five people involved came together, and -- insofar as can be known -- how four of them came to die. The one thing that bothers me is that three different narratives arose about the failure of the expedition, which might be called the "Stefansson narrative" (after the organizer of the expedition), the "Noice narrative" (after the man who rescued them but then gratuitously destroyed expedition records in a quest for fame), and Niven's own narrative. Obviously Niven believes her own reconstruction to be correct. I incline to believe it, too, but I was constantly thinking, "Can you prove that?" Maybe Niven can, but I didn't feel as if it had been proved.

That caution being spoken, I repeat that the narrative of the expedition is good.

The narrative of Ada Blackjack was more complicated. Oh, I concede that Niven didn't have much material to work with as far as actual biography is concerned; records about Inuit born in the late 1800s are all but non-existent! And Blackjack didn't leave much in the way of personal accounts, and she seems to have been quite socially isolated. So, in essence, we get a capsule biography of Ada's early years, a detailed examination of a period of four years or so when she was in public view, and then it's back to the capsule biography. It's not really a portrait of a complete person.

But it is a very puzzling story. Why did Ada Blackjack suffer so much at the hands of the other members of the expedition? "Arctic hysteria" is just a phrase. There is no question but that some people do turn very strange in the Arctic; history shows that again and again. But Ada's was a different sort of strangeness. And she was socially isolated among both Inuit and Europeans. She had repeated marital liaisons that failed. She was afraid of all sorts of things, with polar bears being the most noteworthy. When attacked, she rarely defended herself from the charges against her. She doesn't seem to have liked to talk. It sounds as if she had a thing about jigsaw puzzles. The list goes on.

At minimum, it's the picture of a woman who had anxiety issues. But also social phobia. She wasn't stupid -- her ability to survive when four stronger, more assertive men failed shows that. But she had trouble using her skills.

We all see what we want to see. As a person who has autism myself, what I saw was a woman who had autism, and suffered the social cost that people with autism often pay. Do I know that? Of course not. Author Niven never tries to get into Ada's psychology at all, except for the brief mention of Arctic hysteria, which she treats as an isolated thing. But it doesn't matter if Ada had autism or not; what matters is that we don't really understand her enough to be sure. In the end, I'm not sure I gained any real understanding of this woman who was, potentially, so important -- one of the first women to engage in Arctic exploration. This feels like a hole in the book, to me. At least, it nagged at me throughout.

On the other hand, I know of no other modern books about the 1920s expedition. We owe Jennifer Niven a lot for reminding us of it. And of the woman who, in the 1920s, very quietly showed that women were capable of a lot more than the men of the time gave them credit for. ( )
  waltzmn | Apr 18, 2018 |
A true story of survival in the arctic
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
This was a wonderful book about the ill conceived plan and woefully unprepared members of the 1921 expedition to occupy Wrangel Island in the "friendly" Arctic. Four men and one woman, an Eskimo named Ada Blackjack, set out to claim and occupy the island for Great Britain. One man, Fred Maurer, had been there previously in 1913. They took six months of supplies for a year's stay intending to rely on hunting and trapping to supplement their diet. The expected supply ship did not appear in the summer of 1922. In January of 1923, three of the men set out to go across the ice to Siberia, then on to Nome, AK to arrange for rescue. Ada remained behind with the fourth man who was showing signs of scurvy. Ada never considered herself a hero, she did what she had to to survive. The book covered not only the expedition itself, but the many correspondences between the families of the men and the organizer of the expedition. I started the book a while ago and got about 70 pages into the story and put it aside for weeks while reading other things. Yesterday I picked it up again and just read and read and read. ( )
  punxsygal | Jan 16, 2016 |
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As she looked back, the trail behind her faded away and she was way up in the air, with no man behind her and only smooth trail leading into the sky.
the Lady in the Moon
my father --
this one and all the ones to follow

who did so much to make
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 078688746X, Paperback)

Now in paperback, the gripping and inspiring tale of a woman's survival alone in the Arctic.

In 1921, four men and one woman ventured deep into the Arctic. Two years later, only one returned.

When 23-year-old Inuit Ada Blackjack signed on as a seamstress for a top-secret Arctic expedition, her goal was simple: earn money and find a husband. But her terrifying experiences -- both in the wild and back in civilization -- comprise one of the most amazing untold adventures of the 20th century. Based on a wealth of unpublished materials, including Ada's never-before-seen diaries, bestselling author Jennifer Niven narrates this true story of an unheralded woman who became an unlikely hero.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:18 -0400)

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It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to colonize desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island. They took with them six months' worth of supplies but as winter set in, they were struck by hardship and tragedy. Soon Ada found herself totally alone. Upon her miraculous return after two years on the island, the international press heralded her as the female Robinson Crusoe. This is the inspiring tale of a woman who survived a terrible time in the wild only to face a different but equally trying ordeal back in civilization.--Publisher's description.… (more)

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