Safe Return Doubtful

By John Maxtone-Graham

US edition Barnes & Noble, 1999

ISBN 0 094 80330 7

There are many ways of cutting the cake in telling the stirring narratives of arctic travel: individual expeditions, specific objectives, and the careers of particular explorers, to name but three. In Safe Return Doubtful, first published in 1988, John Maxtone-Graham chooses to focus on expeditions to the geographical poles. Beginning with Parry’s first attempt on the North Pole in 1827, he steams briskly through Kane, Hall, Nares, De Long and Greely before beginning on his five big hitters - Nansen, Peary, Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen - with sidelights along the way on Salomon Andrée (the balloonist with the luck of Richard Branson) and, unavoidably, the fraudulent fantasist Frederick Cook.

Maxtone-Graham’s prose is engaging and page-turning; he covers a lot of ground (or rather ice), usefully bringing together in a short space summaries of the major expeditions in the two decades around 1900 which saw all the serious attempts to reach the poles and the eventual achievement of both in the space of two and a half years. Despite the book’s subtitle, "The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration", he omits Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16 which is usually considered to bring that age to a close, as well as other expeditions - by Hayes and Borchgrevink, for example - that did not improve upon earlier knowledge or were not specifically aimed at the poles. The subtitle also limits the author in another sense. As he states plainly in his introduction, his aim is to celebrate heroism, and a critical, questioning analysis of the explorers’ methods and motives, or of the values of the wider exploring traditions they represented, is for the most part outside his scope. The heroic focus - not really susceptible to new advances in research - is presumably also why no attempt was made to revise the book for this reissue. For an equally readable and inspiring but more searching overview of the northern hemisphere material here this reviewer would recommend Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail (also 1988) while for the southern explorers, Roland Huntford’s Scott and Amundsen (1979) and Shackleton (1985) can scarcely be bettered.

Jonathan Dore