Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

by Jennifer Niven

New York: Hyperion Books, $24.95


reviewed by Russell A. Potter


As she researched The Ice Master, her remarkable account of the fate of the ill-starred Karluk expedition, Jennifer Niven knew there was another story yet to be told, one which was in many ways even more astonishing that the infamous disaster which preceded it. It was a story which, had it not been grounded in historical fact, might seem like a made-for-Hollywood sequel. Returning in his role as the villain was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who managed to make a career of the kind of remote-control expeditions in which others got lost and stranded while he went on lecture tours. Two of the survivors of the Karluk fiasco, Frederick W. Maurer and E. Lorne Knight, were eager to reprise their roles, with the addition of two young men whose inexperience was tragically reminiscent of the Karluk's crew, Allan Crawford and Milton Galle. The one new member of the cast, the one who in film credits would surely be hailed as "and introducing," was Ada Blackjack, an Inupiaq Eskimo from Nome, and the only one of a planned contingent of Eskimo hunters and guides who actually made the trip. It is Ada's story which Niven takes as the centerpiece of her narrative, and yet it is Ada who, throughout the book, remains the most elusive and enigmatic figure.

As the setting for his absentee adventure, Stefansson chose Wrangel Island, the very place where the crew of the Karluk had sought refuge from their shipwrecked vessel. Stefansson was consumed with the idea that Wrangel Island was an ideal location for a demonstration of his notion of the "Friendly Arctic," and believed -- incredibly -- that it was a free territory, which ought to be properly claimed in the name of Canada and the British Empire. Never mind the fact that it had always been considered part of Russia, and later the Soviet Union, why Canada would wish to claim an island so far from its westernmost point, with Alaska intervening, is an utter mystery, as is Stefansson's unshakable obsession with this notion. On the other hand, given the history of the Canadian government in more recent times, when it deliberately dislocated Inuit communities in order to settle land which would strengthen Canada's territorial claims, perhaps this idée fixée was not quite so mad as it seems.

Niven opens her story well before these events, and gives us a wonderful peek into the showmanship of Stefansson in a day when Arctic explorers found the lecture circuit to be a convenient means to parlay their fame into profit. In the nineteenth century, numerous Arctic explorers -- among them, Charles Francis Hall, Isaac I. Hayes, and John P. Cheyne -- had given popular lectures, accompanied by an array of maps, lantern slides, and Inuit artifacts, in order to raise money for a return to those icy regions whence they had but lately come. By Stefansson's day, the well-worn Chautauqua circuit provided a ready platform for such exhibitions, and figures such as J.W. Goodsell, Bob Bartlett, and others had regularly trodden its boards. Maurer himself had briefly had his own such show, billed as the "Lone American Survivor" of the Karluk fiasco, but by 1921 he had been demoted to a position as Stefansson's opening act.

Despite his harrowing experiences with Stefansson's earlier expedition, and lingering resentment against Stefansson for his abandonment of the Karluk, Maurer evidently felt it an honor to work for him, and was keen to return to the Arctic. Stefansson, for whom pre-expedition secrecy was another watchword, said nothing, but was apparently already planning to send a party to Wrangel Island. There was only one thing missing: in order to make the claim for Canadian, and therefore British ownership of Wrangel, Stefansson needed a Canadian citizen to serve at least as the ostensible commander of the expedition. To this end, he wrote a confidential letter to the president of the University of Toronto, asking him to nominate some young man "just out of college," with good eyesight, health, and circulation, preferably one who had majored in Botany, Zoology, or Geology. This letter was eventually passed, by one of his professors, to a young man by the name of Allan R. Crawford, the son of a mathematics professor at the University, who was still an undergraduate. Crawford was a longtime admirer of Stefansson, and went to great lengths to talk up his abilities in his application; Stefansson, who it seems cared as much about Crawford's citizenship and availability as any special talents he possessed, hired him at the promised wage of eighteen hundred dollars a year.

Crawford was to be commander of the expedition in an honorary sense, though in actual practice he was placed under the guidance of E. Lorne Knight. Knight, like Maurer, was a veteran of one of Stefansson's earlier expeditions, and shared his belief in the notion of the "Friendly Arctic," despite the fact that he had suffered from the effects of scurvy during his previous sojourn. Together with Maurer, Knight would bring an element of experience and maturity to the party, and with their loyalty to their mentor could be counted on to keep quiet and keep to the plan. The final member of the expedition team was to be Milton Galle, an enthusiastic nineteen-year-old who had met Knight and Maurer while working as Stefansson's lantern projectionist; the older men regaled him with their Arctic tales, and lobbied Stefansson to add him to the roster. In the end, after considerable waffling, Stefansson did include Galle, though only as a kind of unpaid assistant; his only income was to come from the sale of such furs as he could obtain while on Wrangel.

All four young men were delighted with the opportunity for Arctic adventure -- their families, for the most part, were a bit more cautious. Several of them wrote to Stefansson, and only agreed to allow their sons to participate after receiving reassurances. His letters in reply are all tinged with retroactive irony -- but at the time, who would have doubted the word of such a great explorer, a man who assured them all that a trip to the Arctic was as safe and comfortable as a visit to Hawaii? The party was soon gathered together in Seattle, where they received detailed instructions from Stefansson on how to supply and equip themselves after they reached Nome, which was to be their jumping-off point. No more than a half-year's provisions were necessary, they were told, given the abundance of wildlife on the island; they were advised to hire Eskimos as hunters and guides, as well as to purchase a large skin-boat or umiak for use offshore. Most importantly, they were not to breathe a word of their destination to the press, an admonition which they all followed dutifully right up to their day of departure. This was because Stefansson was still "negotiating" with Canadian and British authorities for support of his efforts to claim Wrangel Island for the Crown -- though of course Stefansson's idea of negotiations, as Niven notes, was to send elaborate, self-important letters which only puzzled their official recipients, and to interpret their politely-worded refusals as a kind of tacit encouragement.

It's only when this group of four, now fast friends, reaches Nome that we have the chance to really meet Ada Blackjack, although Niven has earlier given a brief snapshot of her life as a kind of prologue to the book as a whole. Her situation was not unlike that of many other Inupiaq and Yupiq whose livelihood and culture had been displaced by white settlers and missionaries; she had been sent away from her isolated village to Nome to attend a Methodist school, and ended up married to an abusive man who abandoned her -- leaving her with a son, Bennett, who had chronic tuberculosis --- another gift from the whites. To make ends meet, she cleaned and cooked for other people, but was unable to earn even enough to support herself and placed Bennett in an orphanage. When she heard about the expedition being planned to Wrangel Island, she was very cautious about the idea of going away so far from familiar surroundings, and was persuaded only by the idea that she would be among other Inupiaq, and would earn a good deal of money with which she hoped she could get better treatment for her son. Niven dramatizes Ada's visit to a local shaman, who advised her that there would be "much death" on the expedition, and to beware of knives, both true enough. Unfortunately for her, the other Inupiaq who had agreed to go talked to the same shaman, and when she arrived at the pier she was completely alone.

In almost any other circumstance, she would have refused to go as well. However, having given her word, she was reluctant to break it, and her need for money was so great that the expedition's pay, along with the promise of furs, were too much to refuse. The four would-be explorers, for their part, were naive enough to believe that they would just pick up some more Eskimos somewhere else, and persuaded Ada to stay on that slender premise. That Ada was not herself a hunter, and had as little experience living off the land as the expedition's two novices, were hardly considered; she was an Eskimo, and Stefansson had told them to get some. At any rate, she could sew, and the promise of boots and mittens made to order from what furs they could harvest was enough to hang some hope on for four would-be Arctic heroes.

Niven's account of Ada's appearance character here is somewhat troubling; by frequent references to her "delicate features," "guarded smile," and "elfin face," she plays into the very stereotypes of Eskimos she elsewhere manages to avoid. Nevertheless, Ada's courage in undertaking to keep her promise to accompany these four strangers on their mysterious mission comes through loud and clear; her concern for her son, and for her good character, make hers a decision which we understand and admire, even as we know that the expedition's eventual fate is not to be a happy one.

After a series of last-minute snags -- including one in which world leaked out of the explorers' destination -- the party of five finally sailed out from Nome. The hoped-for additional Eskimos failed to materialize, but by then it was too late for Ada to turn back. Still, ice conditions were favorable, allowing the ship to maneuver close to shores of Wrangel; the supplies were unloaded without incident, and the men lost no time in erecting a base camp and claiming the island in the name of Great Britain. Game was abundant at first, so much so that they stopped bothering to shoot every polar bear who strayed near the camp; each morning, the snow was covered with their paw-prints. Ada was terrified; she knew all too well the danger of nanuq, and was realizing -- not for the first time -- the terrors of being away from home, from familiar faces, and from her son Bennett. Still, she took some consolation, as did the others, in the belief that there would be a relief party in a year, which everyone assumed was to be led by Stefansson himself, and doubtless would bring additional Eskimos and supplies.

And then their troubles began. Ada, after seeing one of her comrades sharpening knives, was understandably terrified; at the same time, she began to experience bouts of severe depression, and frequently refused to do the work she had been assigned. To make things worse, she developed a crush on Crawford, much to his chagrin. The four men seemed to have no grasp of the emotions she was undergoing, and repeatedly punished her by withholding her food and, in one instance, tying her to a flagpole. Niven regards Ada's behavior as a sign that she was suffering from "Arctic Hysteria," an illness of dubious provenance which has been used to explain the actions of Eskimo women who, in the judgement of white male explorers, are behaving "irrationally." This diagnostic explanation seems problematic as well as needless -- what person, male or female, would not react with extreme feeling to being stranded in the company of four utter strangers, and having to rely upon them for safety in an unfamiliar and dangerous land?

Whether it was inexperience or simply an overinflated sense of their prospects, Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle did little to prepare for the coming winter and spring. They ate their way through much of the provisions they had brought, and neglected to hunt the abundant game in sufficient numbers to cache away much meat. When it came to diet, there was a similar lack of awareness of the importance of fresh meat; the favored treats were home-made candy and hard bread dipped in grease. Knight, for one, was a picky eater, and his turning up his nose at fox and bear meat was to hasten the onset of his suffering from scurvy, By the time it became apparent that, for whatever reason, much of the game had moved on to other grounds, it was too late to do much about it. Still, since Stefansson would be arriving with fresh supplies the next summer, there was little concern.

The men's families, however, were already anxious, as it became clear to them that, in the first instance, Stefansson's plans for a relief expedition were late and underfunded, and the "great man"had no intention of going along himself. The imaginary support of the Canadian and British governments which he had counted upon never materialized, and Stefansson was eventually forced to throw whatever resources he had into a smaller relief voyage sent out at the last possible moment. Ice conditions, it soon became evident, would prevent almost any ship from landing at Wrangel, let alone the rusty, ill-equipped tub that was sent; despite the valiant efforts of her captain, the vessel was obliged to return to Nome without having delivered the promised relief. Of course this was really no cause for concern, Stefansson assured them, for in the "Friendly Arctic" they would have no trouble procuring ample food.

The trouble with this notion of Stefansson's was that it was, within certain limits, true. Able hunters, equipped with dogs and sledges and the ability to move to wherever game was to be found, could survive fairly readily in the Arctic. Explorers who had followed this method, such as Dr. John Rae, rarely suffered from privation, and were even able to give extra food to their Inuit neighbors. But the party at Wrangel island was trapped on its little bit of land, with too few dogs and little experience using them. This was readily apparent in some of their forays about the island, during one of which Knight, in the company of a lone dog, nearly froze to death before he could make his way back to the camp. In a telling sign of his ignorance of the basic rules of Arctic travel, he had eaten nearly all the food he had found, giving almost nothing to his dog.

Once it was clear that there was no ship coming, the Wrangel Island party did what they could. They moved their camp to a new location to have access to more driftwood, and, Knight and Crawford made plans to sledge across the ice to Nome where they assumed "Stef" would be there to greet them. They only managed to travel for two days before they both realized they were too infirm, and the ice too hummocky and rough, for them to have any chance of making the trip. On their return to camp, Knight was already in the throes of scurvy, and though he tried to keep it secret, it was plain that he was the worst off of the lot. A new plan was devised, in which the three healthiest -- Crawford, Maurer, and Galle -- were to attempt to reach Nome by way of Russian Siberia. Ada was to remain at the camp to care for Knight. The three who were to leave were guardedly optimistic, but left last letters in case they did not return; Galle left his on the platen of his prized typewriter, which he warned Ada not to touch. On January 29, just over a week after Knight and Crawford's return from their abortive attempt, the party of three set off for Nome via Siberia.

It's at this point that Ada, who up until now has remained a nearly mute figure in Niven's narrative, leaps into life on the page. Knight, completely disabled by scurvy, was soon unable to undertake even the most basic tasks, and Ada Blackjack was faced with the challenge of learning to survive, or seeing them both die. Each day, she had to chop wood to feed the fire, and try to get Knight, picky as ever, to swallow some food. She had not yet learned to use the gun, but managed to check, and later to set, some of the traps about the camp, which brought them occasional meals of Arctic fox. She gave as much of the meat and broth to Knight as he could stomach, which was less and less. It's at this point that Ada, faced with an almost intolerable sense of isolation and futility, began to keep a journal. In addition to noting her daily doings and occasional catches, she confided her hopes and fears to paper for the first time:

If anything happen to me and my death is known, there is black strip for Bennett school book bag, for my only son. I wish if you please take everything to Bennett that is belong to me. I don't know how much I would be glad to get back to folks.

Ada's words, hesitant and unpolished as they are, contain more emotional truth than all the scribblings of the men who considered themselves better educated or better prepared than she. It's too bad that Niven does not give us more of Ada's journal entries, but instead weaves just a few of them into her third-person omniscient narrative, within which her readers catch only occasional snippets of Ada's singular voice.

Despite Ada's improving skill with the traps, and her attempts to take target-practice with the rifle, Knight's condition continued to worsen. She was eventually able to shoot a few birds, a feat of no mean skill given the weight of the rifle and her own slight build; she built a special brace to shield herself from the recoil. At one point, Knight began "to cruel" with her, blaming his condition on her and deliberately trying to hurt her feelings. Happily, this moment passed, but it turned out to be Knight's death rattle; after a few additional periods of lucidity, during which Knight apologized for his words, he died. Ada left him where he had lain, taking care simply to wall the area with boxes so that his body would not be molested by animals.

Ada's resourcefulness during her time of complete solitude is nothing short of astounding. She managed to become a crack shot with the rifle, downing birds in flight as well as seals, and though she didn't shoot any polar bears, she managed to frighten off some who were attracted by the smell of the food she had gathered. With Knight gone and no sense of when, or whether, the others would return, Ada finally broke the taboo surrounding Galle's typewriter. Niven gives us a bit more of this typed journal, and Ada's voice rings clear as before:

June 26th. I'm going to take a walk to the smale Island. I saw the Polar bears going in shore from the ice way over west of the camp. It's four oclock now. I write down when I saw them. I don't know what I'm going to do if they come to the camp. Well, God knows.

By this time, of course, the men's families were frantic with worry. Stefansson, who with an air of grandiosity had announced his retirement from Arctic exploration, did what he could to mount a second relief expedition via remote control. He ended up, somewhat against his own better judgment, placing the rescue mission in the hands of Harold Noice, a rather disreputable Stefansson alumnus who held an old grudge against Knight. With funds mostly from private British donors (among them Sir John Franklin's granddaughter), Stefansson dispatched Noice to find a ship and bring a relief party, including Eskimos who were to maintain the imaginary colony he had planned. Noice's departure was held up again to the last moment by Stefansson's delay in wiring funds, but this time luck was with him. Despite the dereliction of the ship's captain, who had to be fired at the pier, Noice managed to guide the ship, the Donaldson, to within visual distance of the shores of Wrangel by late August.

At first, Noice could discern no signs of life, save a long- abandoned camp and some scattered debris, among which he found a note in a bottle describing Crawford's claim of the island in the name of King George. Ever cautious lest his ship strike ice or run aground, he continued to search the coastline, and eventually came upon the second camp. Seeing a human figure standing on the beach. Noice quickly ordered an umiak lowered into the water, and was astonished when he found Ada alive and well, with the news that Knight was dead and the others apparently lost in an attempt to reach Nome. "There is nobody here but me," Ada told him, "I am all alone."

* * * * * *

The balance of Niven's book recounts the tangled web of publicity, rumor, and circumstance which followed Ada's return, and the news of the presumed death of all the other members of the expedition. Although Ada was nothing but grateful to Noice, and turned over everything on the island to his care (including all the journals), he soon began to doubt her. Reading the accounts of her early homesickness and infatuation with Crawford, he sensed scandal -- scandal which he thought he could turn to opportunity. He defaced Knight's journal, the key source for these events, and removed a number of pages; later, he would accuse Ada of having done it. He turned against Stefansson, rightly blaming him for his role in the men's deaths, but also subtly blackmailing him with threats of dreadful revelations from the journals, which he refused to hand over. Ada, trapped in the public eye of the press, did all she could to disappear.

Stefansson moved, deliberately, to control the damage. He tried to placate the families, but they quickly turned against him, trusting neither him nor Noice as the rumors and innuendo grew. Knight's family was the most active in its campaigning to set the record straight; they believed that Ada had done all she could to save their son, and managed after some difficulty to arrange a meeting so that they could thank her. She never forgot their gratitude, and they never lost faith in her. Stefansson, feeling that Ada was a loose cannon, took a different view; via intermediaries, he sent her a small amount of money and assistance, but only to buy her silence and invisibility. The other families reacted with shock and dismay, and all of them wanted back some trace of their loved ones. Stefansson could hardly oblige -- Noice had all the items in his control -- and he was a notoriously evasive correspondent. To Galle's family, he never sent so much as a word, apparently feeling that, since Galle was not technically in his employ, he owed them nothing.

The aftermath of the expedition is recounted in great detail over the final third of the book. Throughout it all, Ada dodges out of the way of Niven's pursuing pen, appearing here and there speaking from behind a locked door, or described in a brief meeting with members of one of the men's families, only to vanish again. There is a photograph in the book, captioned "Ada trying to disappear into the crowd," showing a middle-aged Ada hurrying down the sidewalk, which seems to capture the essence of this part of the book. She did what she could for her son Bennett, using money she obtained from the sale of furs to find treatment for his tuberculosis. Her life continued to have its ups and downs, with the downs often reported in the press as sad examples of the fate of an "Arctic Heroine." Throughout her ordeals, however, it's clear that Ada remained steadfast, never halting for long in self-pity, always finding ways to make do during even the most trying circumstances. The accounts of Ada by her second son, Billy, illuminate her character again at book's end, and give us some sense of closure.

Yet throughout this gripping and engaging narrative, we remain at one remove from its eponymous heroine. Perhaps it's the cultural gap, not as much of a factor with the four men -- or perhaps it's the fragmentary evidence and reticent statements she left behind. Niven, as always, is a masterful storyteller, and Ada Blackjack Johnson is fortunate indeed to have her as the chronicler of her life. Niven's cinematic sweep is impressive, bringing a rich cast of characters vividly before our eyes -- and still somehow when it comes to Ada, we end up wishing we'd known her better.


Interested in learning more? Click here to read our interview with the author, Jennifer Niven.