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The Birthday Boys
by Beryl Bainbridge
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Interesting and engaging construction. Very well done.
This is a very interesting retelling of the Scott Terra Nova (South Pole) expedition - five chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of the five men who died on the trip to the Pole. They are known to us today primarily through their letters and journals and through the writings of others who knew them, including members of the Antarctic expedition who weren't part of the final push south.
It's fiction, of course, but Bainbridge has obviously read up on the subject. As a fan of Antarctic history and fiction, I found this a very thoughtful treatment. I do think some knowledge of the topic would make a big difference to how much the book can be appreciated and enjoyed.
Received via Open Road Media and NetGalley in exchange for an completely unbiased review.
Also posted on Silk & Serif
The Birthday Boys is a novel about perseverance. This novel is a look at humanity in the face of increasingly inhospitable conditions and the camaraderie of a group of ill-fated scientific explorers whose story is evidently famous. Personally, I know little of this expedition and have only read works on the Shackleton expedition. I honestly had no idea there was a second expedition on route at the exact same time as Shackleton’s until I read this account. Regardless, the perilous nature of the arctic during this time is well envisioned by Bainbridge in this alternating narrative concerning the push to reach he pole.
Originally written in 1991, Birthday Boys is still a powerful fictional account of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic in 1912 and should still be consumed by readers of today. Bainbridge marries the style of classic novels and modern flair to create a haunting account of the ill-fated voyage and her doomed crew.
I found Bainbridge’s tale of survival on the ice sheets illuminating in a few ways. First, there were probably far more expeditions to the pole than what is in popular historical record. Second, all expeditions sent to the pole during this era were doomed. Modern technology has made living on the polar caps possible – although still incredibly difficult – but the early explorations relied on human capital and luck to survive these conditions. Today we have insulated parkas, heated buildings and advanced medicine to combat the effects of the elements, yet during Captain Scott’s expedition in 1912 they took ponies, basic medical supplies and sleeping bags made of material that freeze solid when wet. It is one thing to rationally understand the conditions early expeditions encountered, but another entirely to read a fictional account based on historical records. The suffering the members of this expedition and their animals faced was sometimes difficult to read.
The men of the Scott expedition continued to dream about their loved ones and the warm sunshine until the very end of their tales. Each man held onto the knowledge that soon enough they would set sail from the Arctic and return home - many of which planned to make this journey their last and settle down.
Birthday Boys was a sad tale about an ill fated voyage. I did not know what to expect going into this novel and was frankly surprised by the ending. I also found the characters to be a tad difficult to differentiate from when I had taken a break from the intense and often overwhelming monologues of the crew. Each crew member recounts their experience before setting sail for the Arctic, and each reveals their experiences on the ice once cold, frost bite and hunger set in. Hostility, fear and depression set in and each crew member recounts how they suffered. What really stuck with me once I finished reading Birthday Boys was the hope the crew members continued to hold until the very end.
Unfortunately, there isn't much more I can say about this novel. It was short but difficult to read, it was well written but often too intense and it will undoubtedly be a classic some day. Strong characters, realistic situations and a well researched fictional account of a real event with an exploration of the psychological effects the doomed crew of Scott's expedition experienced on their final journey to the top of the world.
This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction, psychological exploratory novels and novels with extremely dark subject matter. A warning to readers that this novel does not have a happy ending and the struggles of all involved are not for the faint of heart. This well written, thoroughly researched and beautiful novel may fool readers by it's small size, but is as densely packed as any popular classic novel.
I know enough about the Scott Expedition to Antarctica to know that Beryl Bainbridge captured the essence of the adventurers' courage and determination in the five different voices she channeled. The angle about each of the men 'celebrating' a birthday under formidable circumstances humanized their predicament. I liked getting the different perspectives of their journey and their impressions of what they endured. I had previously listened to much of The Worst Journey in the World based on one of the survivor's journals and found Bainbridge's fictionalized accounts spot on.
Each of the five narratives advances the quest to reach the South Pole. It was heartbreaking that for all their efforts they would be second to the Norwegians. It is evident that Scott's leadership was inept and just as evident that his men were loyal and brave to the end. The book is a labor of love and a tribute to the men who wouldn't turn back. I recommend this book to those who enjoy retellings of true adventure stories.
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Wikipedia in English (3)
The dramatic, fictionalized account of Robert Falcon Scott's famed and fatal expedition to Antarctica by one of Britain's best-loved authors. Departing from Cardiff in 1910, the Terra Nova entered dark waters and headed south. On board were Petty Officer Edgar "Taff" Evans, Dr. Edward "Uncle Bill" Wilson, Capt. Robert Falcon "Con" Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson "Birdie" Bowers, and Capt. Lawrence Edward "Titus" Oates. Through an imaginative yet historically accurate retelling of the crew's mission to become the first explorers to reach the South Pole--and with each of the book's five chapters narrated from the unique perspective of one of these men--author Beryl Bainbridge imbues a tragic and thrilling adventure story with profound psychological, metaphysical, and emotional insight. The first three chapters of The Birthday Boys--recounted by Evans, Wilson, and Scott, respectively--tell of the preparations and fundraising required for the journey, two stopovers in Madeira and South Trinidad Island, and the difficult conditions the expedition faces when they land on Antarctica. It is Wilson who first fears for the safety of the crew, when from atop the ship's crow's-nest he spies a fantastical half-man-half-bird creature flying above the sea. The doctor is certain this apparition is a harbinger of death. Troubles then ensue when Scott sets up a base camp at Cape Evans as well as several depots in the direction of the South Pole. The motor sledge breaks down almost immediately, several ponies are lost to the harsh elements, and it is revealed that a competing polar expedition led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is already well ahead of Scott's team. In the final two chapters--told by Bowers and Oates--readers are taken on a dangerous but spectacular detour to a penguin rookery, where the men witness gorgeous auroras, build an igloo, gather eggs, and slaughter the arctic birds for their blubber. When a violent blizzard hits, it looks as if no one will make it out alive. But brotherly love in the face of all odds gives the men the power to survive, and the five heroes set off on their final march to the South Pole. Though history has already revealed the catastrophic end of this tale, Bainbridge shows us the bravery, courage, and humanity essential to the adventure. Masterfully blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, The Birthday Boys is a compelling historical biography that challenges readers to discover truths that can only be reached through the imagination. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author's estate.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.914Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 1901-1999 1945-1999
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Without knowing the cliches that these five men were turned into, in the "Boy's Own" fairytale that their disastrous mission became in the 100 years since their death, I don't think it would be obvious just how cleverly Bainbridge puts flesh on bones that hero-worship had stripped of most of their humanity. While revisionist histories put the blame squarely on Scott, as a poor leader who made very bad choices, Bainbridge does a remarkable job of channeling the voices of the five, demonstrating how the weaknesses of each one (and even their strengths) contributed to the tragedy. And at the same time, she gives credit to the power of the legend, leaving the reader with a sense of profound sadness that such good intentions and --yes, let's be old fashioned for a moment -- nobility should have ended so badly. I'm greatly looking forward to Bainbridge's take on the Titanic ("Every Man for Himself") -- another tragedy that might have ended very differently if only one person in a position of authority had thought for a moment and said, "Hey, wait ...."
So if you're familiar with the story of Robert Falcon Scott, I highly recommend this novel for its canny insights into the characters involved, and how an expedition that was supposed to demonstrate an Empire's strength of technology and character went so badly wrong. And if you are new to the story of Robert Falcon Scott ... it's a great story. And this wonderful novel will be waiting for you. ( )