Interview with Jennifer Niven, author of Ada Blackjack


RP = Russell Potter
JN= Jennifer Niven


RP: How far along were you with The Ice Master when you realized that there was a second story to tell, one which would make a book of its own?

JN: I was just beginning my research for The Ice Master at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa when I discovered the story of the Wrangel Island Expedition and Ada Blackjack. Contained within one of the collections I was consulting were some files on this later expedition, and as I read through them I found myself becoming more and more engrossed by this other story. I finally had to force myself to set those files aside and concentrate fully on my Ice Master research. But always, in the back of my mind, I knew there was the possibility of this other book.

RP: At what point did you decide that Ada Blackjack's story would be the central part of your project?

JN: I think my entry point to the story was the character of Fred Maurer, who was a member of the Karluk expedition. While I was researching the Epilogue for The Ice Master, I became fascinated with the fact that Fred Maurer returned to Wrangel Island eight years later, in spite of all he had suffered there in 1914. I wanted so much to discover what would compel him to go back. In doing so, I kept coming back to Ada Blackjack. Even more than Maurer’s journey, I found myself intrigued by Ada’s. Who was she? The fact that she was the lone woman and the lone survivor made me want to know more about her and her story, and gradually I came to see that she should really be my focus, although the four young men who accompanied her are very important characters as well.

RP: I'm curious about your hypothesis that Ada Blackjack suffered from "Arctic hysteria." Some recent critics have argued that this supposed malady is more a symptom of misunderstanding of Inuit/Inupiaq culture than of any medical condition; they say that such demonstrations of grief or anxiety point to tensions between Eskimos and the white explorers who made great demands on them. In any case, it seems to me that the difficult circumstances in which Ada found herself upon her arrival at Wrangel Island -- cut off from her family, her friends, and her culture -- would be, all by themselves, enough to cause depression in anyone. Why is the "Arctic Hysteria" explanation important?

JN: I felt the Arctic Hysteria explanation was necessary because it was a valued theory of the time period and one that numerous individuals (again of the time period) afterward used to describe Ada’s behavior. Those involved truly did believe she was suffering from at least a mild form of the malady and so–regardless of its legitimacy today – I felt it was important to mention when discussing Ada’s erratic behavior during those first months on the island.

RP: Do you think those who died were victims of inexperience -- that is, could better-trained men have survived?  Or was it just bad luck that the usually abundant game were scarce for a longer period than normal?

JN: I believe that those who died were, first and foremost, victims of Stefansson’s bravado, poor planning, and grand and ill-founded schemes. Perhaps better-trained men could have survived, and Stefansson should have sent better-trained men on this expedition since he chose not to go himself. I believe these young men did the best they could, but what they needed (and lacked) was a true leader–someone to teach them the necessary skills to thrive in that harsh and unpredictable environment. I do not feel any of the young men were fully aware of the dangers that might have awaited them because I don’t believe they were given a completely honest portrait of where they were going and what they were getting into. It was Stefansson’s theory that anyone with sense could live off the land in the "Friendly Arctic," as he called it, and this is what he preached to Maurer, Galle, Crawford, and Knight. Yet Stefansson never journeyed to Wrangel Island, choosing instead to send inexperienced young men. That said, I also believe they suffered from bad luck–unusually poor game conditions and unusually forbidding ice conditions surrounding the island, which made it impossible for a relief ship to reach them that first year.

RP: Stefansson's conviction that Canada and Great Britain would be interested in claiming Wrangel Island seems astonishingly misinformed -- why do you think he held on to this idea, in the face of mounting evidence that it was erroneous?

JN: I think Stefansson was firmly convinced that Great Britain did have a claim to Wrangel Island due to the rather muddled and disputed history of prior claims to that island, and due to the fact that his own British/Canadian expedition (of 1913-1914) had spent six months on the island years before. Most of all, I think Stefansson–a man of great conviction– wanted to believe that he had some claim to the island on behalf of Great Britain.

RP: Given the evidence you've so dramatically recounted in your two books,  it's amazing to me that Stefansson is still held in any regard as an "explorer." I know that, when writers such as Kenn Harper and S. Allen Counter were researching some of  Peary's more sordid doings, they received quite a bit of pressure from his family and other supporters not to sully Peary's name. Did you feel, while you were at Dartmouth or afterwards, any pressure from boosters of Stefansson, Stefansson's widow (whom I notice you've thanked in your acknowledgements), or the Stefansson Arctic Institute?

JN: Surprisingly, I have encountered very few fans of Stefansson. Even in Canada, his home country (where his name is still quite well known), the general attitude seems to be one of condemnation–not only of his work on the two expeditions I have written about, but of other expeditions he was involved in and of his general character. His widow, Evelyn Nef, was nothing but gracious and generous when granting me permission to quote from her husband’s papers. At no point did she try to influence my opinion of her husband. And– bottom line– the opinion I express in both books is not so much mine as the opinion of the individuals and governments involved with Stefansson during those tragedies.

RP: Did Stefansson, in his lifetime, express any regret or embarrassment about the failure of this expedition?  Do you happen to know if he included it in his lectures and shows, and if so how he presented it?

JN: To my knowledge, Stefansson did not publicly express any regret or embarrassment about the failure of his expedition. My impression was that he was anxious for the whole matter to disappear, and in later years he tried to avoid the subject and pass responsibility for the expedition onto the young men who died under his command.

RP: I found your tracing the of the lasting connections -- and disagreements --  between the families of the four men lost on this expedition to be absolutely fascinating, and yet many accounts of Arctic expeditions offer very little information on the explorer's families.  What made you decide that this part of the story was vital to your book?

JN: Some of the greatest resources used in Ada Blackjack were the private letters between the families–the telegrams they received from Stefansson, the letters they wrote to one another, the letters they received from and wrote to their children. I was lucky enough to have access to boxes of these treasures, and the more I read, the more I knew that this was a very important part of the story. We read so much about the triumphs and tragedies of real-life adventures, but rarely do we get to see anything other than the journey itself and the people directly involved. I thought this story was broader than that and that we needed to see the struggle of these four families–to cope, to come to terms with the fates of their sons, to communicate with one another, and to survive the reality of the tragic loss they endured.

RP: Despite the remarkably detailed account of Ada's life you were able to reconstruct, she seems to remain an enigmatic figure to the very end.  Do  you think this is partly a result of the cultural differences, which aren't as much of a factor for the white explorers?  Or has it more to do with Ada's particular personality?

JN: I definitely think this enigmatic quality has to do with Ada’s particular personality. She had a natural reticence and reserve which sometimes made it difficult for others to get to know her, and she was an enormously private person. Because of this, it was difficult at first for me to get to know her, but I feel that little by little, through her personal documents and through the observations of those closest to her, I was able to know her well. Still, Ada remains a bit of a Mona Lisa figure–shy, enigmatic, private–and I think she would want it that way.

RP: When you met Ada's son Billy, how did that change the course of your book?  I'd be interested to know what he thought of the finished book, and also in any reactions you've heard from Alaskan, especially Inupiaq readers. 

JN: Meeting Billy Blackjack Johnson was a pivotal point in the life of this book because he generously shared his memories and personal collection of papers, photographs, and mementoes with me. Through him, I was able to get to know Ada–by holding a tool she fashioned and used on Wrangel Island, by holding the very Bible Lorne Knight presented to Ada before his death, by thumbing through her own photo albums put together by Ada herself. Tragically, Billy passed away on June 22 of this year, and so was not able to see the finished book. But I believe he was excited that I was writing the story of his mother’s life, and he was nothing but supportive and enthusiastic about this project. Since the book has only recently been released, I have not yet heard much feedback from Alaskan–and Inupiaq–readers, but the feedback I have received has been quite favorable and appreciative.

RP: The inevitable last question: What's your next project?

JN: I have just begun researching a fascinating story set in the American Deep South. That’s all I can say for right now, except that it is very different from my first two books…