I remembered Vilhjalmur Stefansson (born William Stephenson) as an explorer on the line of Ernest Shackelton and Roald Amundsen. But in Jennifer Niven's Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, he comes across as all olive and no gin. The expeditions he sponsored ended in failure, the first with seven men dead, the next second with four. Stefansson meanwhile dedicated himself to publicity and fund-raising, with limited success in the second case. The sole survivor of the Wrangel Island expediton, 1921-23, was a tiny Native Alaskan seamstress, Ada Blackjack, who actually was little better prepared to live off the wilderness than the young men who accompanied her to Wrangel, a Canadian and three Americans, who treated her with an extraordinary lack of human kindness. The promised relief ship failed to arrive in the summer of 1922. In January 1923, after months of hunger and hardship, the three healthiest men set off for the mainland with the last of the dogs, but they apparently never reached shore.
Ada was left to take care of Lorne Knight, who was suffering from scurvy. He died in June. She carried on, teaching herself to shoot game, to record her life in photographs, and to write an illiterate but affecting account of her days alone on the island. She was finally rescued in September, just before the ice would have closed in again for a third year. Ms Nevin's book is a wonderful tribute to her resourcefulness, one of the best books I have read in years. I was a bit skeptical of some of her reconstructions -- the verbatim conversations, her private thoughts -- but my granddaughter has read Ada Blackjack's diary, and she testifies to the book's accuracy. (When I look on the Amazon store, I see the Kindle ebook priced at $2.99, a remarkable buy.)
One by one, my literary heroes fall away. Joseph McElroy, John Irving, and yes Lee Child once wrote gripping novels but now are mostly unreadable, either because they've become self-conciously literary (McElroy) or have simply forgotten how to tell a story (Irving and Child). But now I have a new hero: Mick Herren and his Slough House series, starting with this one. We're in today's London, where MI5 look back on the 1990s as a lost Eden: "that blissful break when the world seemed a safer place, between the end of the cold war and about ten minutes later." The blend of sweetness and a jab to the belly is pure Mick Herron. Slough House is where disgraced MI5 secret agents are sent to do make-work chores in hopes they'll quit the service. (One can't fire a government employee, of course.) It's overseen by Jackson Lamb, who in a twist on Hobbes is "nasty, brutish, and fat," but who grows on you over time. A lot is going on in each of the books, and it's told in short, cliff-hanging episodes. I went through Slow Horses in a couple of days and now am well started on Dead Lions, my excuse being that a bit of minor surgery to my right hand prevents me from typing. (It actually did, for a day or two.) Here, I'm equally entranced by a character's yearning for times past: "If there was anything he missed about being young, it was that careless ability to fall into oblivion like a bucket dropped down a well, then pulled up slowly, replenished. One of those gifts you didn't know you possessed until it was taken away." Mick Herron writes so well, in fact, that British readers didn't much care for the Slough House series -- too challenging, I suppose -- and the first book stalled for three years until an American publisher picked it up and made it a success.
I should have known better! I grew up dirt poor, so I have a visceral dislike of people who float through life on the wealth and connections of their parents. And really, who in 1945 was richer and better connected than Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of the US ambassador to Moscow and granddaughter of E.H. Harriman, the railroad baron who left an estate worth as much as $200,000,000 -- in 1909 dollars! She also happened to be beautiful. Her companions in this hagiography are Sarah Churchill, daughter of the British prime minister, and Anna Roosevelt, daughter of the American president. Oooh, but they were so helpful at Yalta! The author, Catherine Katz, is said to have studied history at Harvard and Cambridge, but evidently never learned the distinction between "Nazi" and "German." I can't tell you how much I disliked this book! Even the cover is phonied up. The photo of the three women was taken indoors, and Roosevelt's daughter happened to be in the center of things. So the photoshoppers moved Harrimans' lovely daughter into the middle -- then they prettied up the sky from yet a third photo! Blue skies! — Daniel Ford
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