Disastrous Journey, but the Book’s Sure Good
BOUND BY ICE by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace has a lot of qualities that I look for in narrative nonfiction. It’s a highly absorbing survival story with lots of suspense. The historical figures have distinct and engaging personalities. And it’s a piece of history that most readers won’t know about already. With a compelling true story, though, it can sometimes be tricky to identify how much of the reader’s experience comes from the events or from the author’s artistry. And that’s what we have to focus on in a Newbery discussion. In this case, I think the authors do a highly accomplished job of bringing this bit of history to life.
The use of primary sources brings a strong sense of immediacy to the narrative. And the Wallaces use the words of De Long and others skillfully to tell this complex story. They typically let the characters’ own words describe the most emotional moments, while their narrative sets the scenes, paces the events, elevates key dramatic scenes, and provides just enough detail. Here’s an example of the subtle interplay between Wallace’s words and the quoted portions (in blue), as some of the crew try to reach an island:
They immediately ran into trouble. After travelling just five hundred yards, they reached an opening in the ice and had to ferry across the water in the dinghy. But the dogs balked at the water, and several ran back to the ship.
“The thermometers registered many degrees below freezing point; the boat was covered with ice, our clothes were wet, and our hands frost-bitten,” Melville wrote. But there was no turning back. Men who’d stayed behind on the Jeannette caught the dogs and returned them to Melville. The dogs were dragged through the water and pulled across. “It was cruel, I know, but there was no alternative,” Melville wrote. Once the dogs had crossed and were hitched to the sled, “the poor shivering brutes were soon warming themselves in the hard work ahead of them.”
The men were working hard too….(86-87)
The quoted passages from Melville provide the most drama: “frost-bitten” hands…”cruel…but no alternative…shivering brutes.” The Wallaces’ words, meanwhile, efficiently set the scene of the dogs turning back, then being forced back to the sled. Then they smoothly shift into the next topic, the toil of the men, after which they (and Melville) wrap up the episode succinctly:
Melville estimated that they’d covered four miles “and made no appreciable gain on the island (87).“
This is just one sample of the seamless weaving of narration and quotation that continues throughout. The vocabulary and style of Melville and DeLong are different from that of the Wallaces, but the back and forth is never jarring; the Wallaces’ words often seem to heighten the impact of the quoted passages.
They also do an exceptional job of establishing and maintaining a high level of action and suspense. Yes, the historical events themselves make a pretty grand adventure, but the authors provide a deft balance of historical context, logistical details, and character revelation. They make it easy for the reader to keep track of things and follow large and small narrative threads.
For example, we learn a bit about navigator John Danenhower in the listing of the “all-star crew” (32), including the fact he had a secret disease. Later we learn about his eye problem from an journal entry from De Long, who says Danenhower is “cheerful enough” (56). Danenhower eventually becomes suspicious (109), then angry when Melville is given command of a boat instead of him:
Danenhower argued with De Long about the slight. But De Long angrily insisted that he would not risk the safety of the other crewmen by giving Danenhower command of the whaleboat (115).
These aren’t major incidents, but they’re easy to follow and we remember enough about Danenhower to notice them. All that careful backstory matters when that whaleboat runs into trouble and Melville passes the command to Danenhower:
…Melville eyed Danenhower, who’d been an outcast for so long. The navigator was an expert in facing storms. “How can we get into a safe position?” Melville yelled.
“If we jibe twice,” Danenhower replied, meaning to turn the boat by shifting the sail from side to side. Danenhower could barely see, but he could still read the waves.
“Take charge!” Melville called (122)
It’s a powerful moment, set up perfectly by the attention to detail and the choice of facts the authors share along the way. Danenhower isn’t a central figure, but they make sure we learn the most important things about him, exactly when we need to know them.
I only just finished it, but I’m impressed enough by BOUND BY ICE to strongly consider it for the last round of Nominations, and would do so ahead of several other strong nonfiction titles, including UNDEFEATED, POISON, ALICE PAUL, EYES OF THE WORLD, and ISAAC THE ALCHEMIST.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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