Books: The Boys in the Boat

(Image / Penguin Books)


Seattle – I recently finished The Boys in the Boat, the outstanding work of non-fiction by Daniel James Brown.

In the book, set in the late 1920s to mid-1930s, Brown uses Joe Rantz, a member of several University of Washington crew teams of that era, as his narrative focal point for conveying the story of one boat’s miraculous efforts on the waterways around Seattle and well beyond. Brown explains the deep meaning of the simple word ‘boat’ in the recollection of Rantz, and to many rowers, present and past.

The Boys in the Boat is immediately engaging, as Brown came to know Rantz in the latter’s dying days and through a series of meetings with the former rower gathered the story.

Rantz’s childhood starts out with difficulty and plummets downward. His mother passes away while Joe is a child and as a teen his father – along with his second wife and the remainder of the family – depart their hometown of Sequim, Washington, leaving Joe behind. It’s an unthinkable move by his father and stepmother but Joe persists on his own, in a half-built farmhouse, on a “stump farm”       land previously lumbered and left riddled with the stumps of trees. It’s in this grim setting that Rantz soldiers on and graduates from high school.

From there life gets only slightly easier as Joe has to work both dangerous and difficult summer jobs to remain a student at the University of Washington. Throughout, he wonders where his father and family are, and also if he will make the rowing team, one of the nation’s best.

The more I tell of the story, the more of an unbelievable one I’ll give away, so I will limit it there and say that Rantz and his peers continue to strive toward excellence in the rowing shell. Their ultimate goal becomes a spot in the 1936 Olympics.

Brown’s writing style is perfect, as are his detours from a straight chronological thread. At times Brown leaves Rantz and his crew behind to tell of the ominous rise of Nazi Germany that is a significant component of the 1936 games, held in Berlin. He also takes diversions into the life of George Yeomans Pocock, the English racing shell builder who relocated to Seattle and had such a prominent hand in the fortunes of Rantz and his crew. Brown chose to feature a quote from Pocock at the beginning of each chapter, and their placement throughout the narrative gives it added depth.

I listened to the book during long drives along I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, and the narrator, the late Edward Herrmann, delivers his last and perhaps best performance of many audiobook efforts. Between the storyline, Brown’s writing talents, and – in the case of the audio book – Herrmann’s storytelling ability, The Boys in the Boat proved one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. – TF

Movies: Everest

I recently watched the movie Everest, which is based in large part on Jon Krakauer’s excellent non-fiction book Into Thin Air and depicts the tragic events that unfolded on the slopes of Mount Everest in May 1996. Krakauer, who was covering the commercialization of Everest for Outside magazine, is in his own right an accomplished mountaineer and while originally intending to stay at “base camp” (the primary staging area for mountain expeditions) to write the story, he took the opportunity – with some encouragement – to attempt to reach the summit peak along with his subjects.

Everest is an engaging, linear account of what proved a horrific event. What precipitated Krakauer’s magazine assignment was the blossoming of commercial (that is, paid) excursions to the summit of Everest led by professional guides in the early-mid 1990s. One concern, among several, was that those who were paying to be aided to the top of the mountain were not capable of doing so safely, even with professional assistance. Their inabilities, even if they ultimately succeeded, could have a ripple effect on the safety of other climbers. This ripple expanded, with dire implications, as the mountain became more clogged with inexperienced climbers emboldened by the company of a professional guide.

Following the first successful ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, one in four people on average who attempted the summit in the years that followed (prior to 1996) perished in the effort. Many of them were experienced mountaineers, yet still fell victim to their pursuit of the peak. With the advent of commercial expeditions to the top – some costing as much as $70,000 per individual climber – the feeling of purchasing away the inherent dangers of the undertaking inevitably crept into the psyche of some customers, even if vocally dissuaded by their guides from such notions.

Into Thin Air and Everest focus primarily on two expeditions: the Mountain Madness team led by American Scott Fischer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and the Adventure Consultants team led by New Zealander Rob Hall (portrayed by Jason Clarke). The two men were both friends and rivals and, as Krakauer aptly points out, their expedition names were reflective of their respective approaches. Hall was far more experienced on Everest than Fischer, and more tempered in his approach. Fischer had not yet summitted the peak in May 1996 and was eager to do so to cement the viability of his firm.

What followed in the early days of May were a series of decisions that were individually lacking in prudence, but in the aggregate were ultimately lethal. Hall made a decision to press on to the peak past their designated turnaround time – although his decision probably stemmed from a laudable empathy – that proved tragically ill-advised. Fischer made several misjudgments, and Krakauer was swept up in a series of cascading events outside his direct control that threatened his life.

One of the great strengths of Into Thin Air is the fluid assessment of the character of the climbers. Krakauer’s viewpoints of his fellow mountaineers changed with time and were nuanced, rather than reactively based on quick impressions (note: Internet comment board scribes would do well to read the book). The climbers were neither two-dimensional nor black-and-white, and for the most part their actions were studies in shades of gray. The movie does its best to convey this character complexity within the limited narrative window of a feature film.

For its part, Everest hews fairly closely to Krakauer’s classic (with some notable exceptions) and Hollywood’s propensity for nonsensical detours from the facts is largely and thankfully absent. Although Krakauer was not pleased with the screenplay – and it is fairly easy to pick out what he would not have cared for once you’ve read the book – viewers should on the balance enjoy a stunning visual depiction of the events described in his account.
 – TF

Books: Chasing Shackleton

(Image copyright William Morrow)

Along with millions present and past, I’ve long admired Ernest Shackleton, his leadership, and his crew’s mettle in returning safely from an attempt to traverse Antarctica a century ago (1914-1916). Most are familiar with the story of survival of his expedition after its ship Endurance was crushed in the pack ice surrounding the continent before they ever made land.

In April 1916, Sir Ernest and a handpicked selection of five from his crew of 27 men set out on an eight-hundred-mile journey in a 22.5-foot wooden lifeboat, the James Caird, in the harrowing seas of the Southern Ocean seeking a whaling station on South Georgia Island, and rescue. The remaining 22 remained stranded on the desolate and remote Elephant Island, with their only hope for survival resting on their own perseverance and the success of Shackleton’s efforts.

Incredibly, Shackleton and his smaller crew succeeded in the crossing and arrived at their destination of South Georgia. There they were faced with another harrowing journey over its unnavigated mountains to the whaling station at Stromness on the far side. The second leg of the miraculous “double” was also successful and Shackleton later returned to rescue the remaining men from Elephant Island in August 1916.

In January 2013, modern explorer and adventurer Tim Jarvis undertook an effort to repeat the double, an especially dangerous portion of Shackleton’s perilous journey. Jarvis and his modern five-man crew attempted both the ocean navigation and the South Georgia expedition outfitted in the same gear as Shackleton a century before.

So as not to spoil the outcome of the excellent Chasing Shackleton that he penned about the expedition, I won’t detail their own efforts, which were filmed by the Discovery Channel and PBS. Although the DVDs that resulted are outstanding, they don’t include the depth of information available in the book. The measure of effort to which the modern day crew went in authentically recreating the double is in and of itself worthy of reading and is well-threaded throughout the book. Chasing Shackleton also includes many photographs both current and past that capture the enormity of the challenges that both the Shackleton and Jarvis parties faced.

Clearly Jarvis, as with Shackleton, returned to tell the tale. Beyond that, you’ll need to read their story, and I’m certain you’ll be thankful you did.  – TF

Note: Previously in Boxer Journal I was fortunate enough to interview Kelly Tyler-Lewis, the author of The Lost Men, the largely forgotten story of the Ross Sea Party that was supporting Shackleton from the far side of Antartica.

Books: A River Runs Through It

(Image / University of Chicago Press)

Missoula, MT – Unless you live in the shadows of the narrow canyon of the Big Blackfoot River, the trout are probably not hitting this time of year. If you’re inclined to trout fishing   and I am more in notion than practice  it’s a good time then to find instead some shade and pull out A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

The story is labeled fiction and is told in the first person by Norman, although to my recollection his name is never uttered or referenced in the book. Its focus is two sons, raised by a Presbyterian minister and his wife, in the early third of the 20th century. Paul, Norman’s brother, is the finest fisherman on the Big Blackfoot, but away from it is where his troubles begin, and ultimately end. The first line of the novel makes clear the relation of the father’s favorite avocation to his vocation, “In our family there was no clear line between fly-fishing and religion.”

Norman is the elder of the two brothers and the lesser of the two fishermen. The story unfolds on the river’s banks and shores, and in Missoula and Helena, Montana. Throughout the narrative, Norman tries to sway Paul from his twin troubles of gambling and drinking. There seems to be little that he can do, and it is his effort that is the poignant stuff of the story. For those who have tried to help someone without a discernible direction  and it’s difficult to picture a reader who hasn’t lasting the slim volume out  A River Runs Through It will certainly resonate.

It is a short book, maybe 25,000 words head to tail, and Maclean has fortunately picked up his father’s proclivity for few words, well-chosen. His crowning achievement may be that there is not a line in the book’s entirety that doesn’t belong. Written at age 72 it was Maclean’s first book, yet it’s not weighed down with a lifetime of unwritten musings.

It is at its core a simple story of struggle and family, and a perfect one at that.  – TF

Books: The Classic Mantle

The Classic Mantle (Photo  / Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

New York – The worst baseball decision I ever made, I made early. It was the summer of 1972, I was six, and I thought it a fine idea to take some of my older brother’s best baseball cards and tape or glue them into my self-styled “scrapbook.”

I didn’t quite understand the premise of scrapbooks, but I knew mine was going to include some great baseball cards. Among the victims was a 1966 Mickey Mantle. 1966 was late in the career of Mantle  he retired after the 1968 season  but with the baseball card hyperinflation of the 1990’s all things Mantle later took on significant value.

One of my better baseball decisions in recent years thankfully also involved the Mick. I picked up a copy of The Classic Mantle by Buzz Bissinger & Marvin E. Newman. Bissinger contributes the text and Newman’s adds a collection of his nearly-perfect vintage photographs of Mantle from his playing days.

The photographs are stunning and describing that at length would do little to convey the notion. Newman, now 87, contributed to many publications during his career, including Sports Illustrated, Life, Newsweek, Look and Smithsonian. He attended Brooklyn College at the age of 16 to study photography and took his lessons well.

Bissinger’s words are compelling. He writes concisely – The Classic Mantle is a 144-page affair with 50 of Newman’s photos – and somehow manages to be sentimentally detached. There are no efforts to smooth over Mantle’s dual vices of alcoholism and infidelity, but there is a conveyance of Mantle’s often pervading self-disdain that clearly contributed to them.

A great strength of the book is Bissinger’s access to the considerable time that sportscaster Bob Costas spent with Mick in the last years of Mantle’s life. Costas conveys, via Bissinger, Mantle’s feelings about himself in a passage in the latter part of the book.

          One night Mantle went to Costas’s house in St. Louis for dinner. Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial was there. Mickey had not entered the Betty Ford Clinic yet, and out of deference to Musial, he had maybe one drink. It was one of those wonderful evenings of baseball storytelling between two baseball immortals. After Musial left, Mantle remarked on what a great person Musial was, but Mantle believed he was the one with more natural ability. “Stan had a better career than me because he’s a better man than me,” he told Costas that night. The shivering acknowledgement of that couldn’t help but permeate the toughest bones of the most suspicious and cynical, except for the few who would always propagate Mantle’s lost potential.

The Friday Night Lights author handles the topic at an appropriate depth to accompany the pictures without rehashing game-by-game accounts that are the undoing of many a baseball book. This is not a definitive history of the slugger’s life nor is it intended to be.

A disproportionate number of Newman’s stellar photos are from the earliest years of Mantle’s 18-season career. While Bissinger describes Mick’s potential as realized, yet blunted by injury and personal behavior, we see a constant series of photos of Mantle in the bloom of youth to poignantly suggest that which was lost.

With each spring, a flood tide of new baseball books rolls in and I typically let it roll back out and stick to those I already own. Although I found it three years after publication, it was worth wading in to pluck this gem out of the wash. – T. Flynn

Interview: Dead Poets Society by N.H. Kleinbaum

The patina of a classic, Dead Poets Society, 2014 (photo / T. Flynn)

Twenty-five years ago this spring, Touchstone Pictures released Dead Poets Society, a film set in 1959 at a fictional New England prep school. It’s in part a story of the potentially tragic chasm between acceptance and exclusion, played out among teens and the adults in their lives who ostensibly know better.

The movie was a breakout hit, grossing $235 Mn despite a budget of just $16 Mn. It received a 1989 Oscar nomination for Best Film, Best Director (Peter Weir) and Best Lead Actor (Robin Williams). Tom Schulman’s script won the year’s Best Original Screenplay.

Away from the screen, journalist and author Nancy “N.H.” Kleinbaum faced the potentially daunting task of turning Schulman’s screenplay into a novel. Novelizations are often measured, for better or for worse, by how closely they replicate a script. A marked divergence from the screenplay would clearly defeat the purpose of writing a novel to accompany a film.

Such would not be the simple measure for the novelization of DPS, as Schulman’s screenplay clearly drew inspiration from such modern American classics as The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. Although not necessarily held to their standard, Kleinbaum’s effort did have a literary context within which it would inevitably be placed.

In the quarter-century since the movie was released, the book has held up exceptionally well on its own merits. Perhaps not surprisingly; in addition to her professional experience, Ms. Kleinbaum holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern and a masters in American Studies, History & Literature from Columbia.

The book has been published in several languages and may be unique in novelizations in having a study guide associated with it.

I spoke with Ms. Kleinbaum recently about her recollections of the process, the film, and some connections to the story from her own life.

The interview was conducted via telephone and email and has been edited for length and clarity. – TF

Fieldhouse: When you were writing the book, had Dead Poets Society been filmed yet?

NHK: No, they were in the process of filming it. I didn’t know where it was being filmed; the only thing I knew about it was that Robin Williams had the lead role of the teacher, Mr. Keating. So I had that in the back of my mind.

I was given the script which had the dialog obviously but had very little geographical description. Some of the famous scenes of going into the forest, into the cave, and Knox Overstreet riding his bike into town, for example, were very skimpy in description.

But the novelization was still one of the most fun ones I’ve ever done as I really loved the story. I loved the characters and I loved all the poetry and literature references that were included in it.

Fieldhouse: You’ve got a unique connection to what may have been the inspiration for the setting of the book and movie.

NHK: 
My brother and each one of my children spent summers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where John Knowles went and A Separate Peace is essentially set, although it’s called Devon in his book.

My physical reference point for DPS was Phillips Exeter. My brother and my three children were all summer school students there for academic enrichment. I spent a lot of time on campus, in the town, and in the nearby woods and such.My parents were there visiting my older son, before the book, when my Dad had a heart attack in nearby Portsmouth. He was quite ill and my Mom and I stayed in a hotel in Portsmouth for several weeks before he could be moved.

During that time I was back and forth to the school. The Dean allowed our son to visit my Dad frequently and I got more of an insider’s sense of the school and the dorms, the rules for meals, and study hours and those things. More than a typical summer parents’ twice a summer visiting day view of it.

So, I felt as though I was at Exeter when I was writing it. I really connected with the boys as well as Mr. Keating.

Fieldhouse: I noticed in reading DPS, it wasn’t exactly the same as the film. How does that typically work?

NHK: Right, there were things that were in the book that were cut from the film and there were things that were in film that were not in the book. Because the film was being made as I was writing it, I didn’t know what was going to be in the final version.

The time pressure was not as intense as with my first project [taken on two weeks’ notice – ed.], so it gave me a little more time to place myself inside the environment and feel the feelings and hopefully convey them.

I think that was one of those wonderful coming-of-age stories. The ending was horribly tragic, which was not unexpected, unfortunately. The concept was great, the characters were very strong. It was relatively easy to flesh them out because I think their words made them the people that they were.

Fieldhouse: Not unlike a play.

NHK: Yes, and I then had to fill in the physical setting. I would close my eyes and remember what I saw at Exeter, so it wasn’t that difficult to write, but very satisfying. It was also very satisfying to be associated with the project.

Interestingly, it was published in French and German, and to this day, 25 years later, there’s some kind of German fan club for the book.
Robin Williams on the cover of a German version of Dead Poets Society (photo / Petersen Classics)

When I lived in Westchester, I think on the back of one of the foreign editions it said I lived in Mt. Kisco, and so people would just send me letters addressed: N.H. Kleinbaum, Mt. Kisco, New York.

My mailman would just deliver them, even though it didn’t have my address they knew who it was after awhile. People really connected to it.

The story is universal and so was extremely popular, and the movie is extremely popular as well. When I watch the movie again, I have the same feeling I did the very first time, which was a great deal of satisfaction from being connected with it, even in a small way.

I think more people, interestingly, are familiar with it in a more intimate way through the book, than they are through the film. They might see the film once, but they might go back to read the book on more than one occasion. I thought it was just a wonderful screenplay and story to work with.

Fieldhouse: I agree it was a great story. I have a couple of passages that I thought you did a particularly good job with, especially not having seen the movie, which is what made me think that you had seen it. On page 30:

Robin Williams as John Keating (photo / Touchstone Pictures)

In the distance, Todd saw the fiery red sun sinking behind the green perimeter of trees that enclosed the sprawling campus.

Fieldhouse: On the next page it says:

The changing colors of the Vermont autumn were muted by the darkness. You’d not seen the film so you weren’t simply describing that, yet although obviously brief passages, they “look” very much like visuals from the movie.

NHK:Thank you. Most often I’d rather write my own piece, but if I’m doing a novelization, I have to stick to what the original screenplay writer wants to convey. Yet I was given a great deal of freedom for this project.

Basically they just said “Here’s the script.” I don’t think they knew that I was familiar with prep schools on a personal level.I wasn’t even aware of St. Andrew’s in Delaware where it was filmed. I might have taken a road trip if somebody had said to me “Oh by the way, they’re filming there.” But I literally only got handed a script.

So on the one hand as a writer, it gave me a great deal of flexibility. The minute I read it I knew it was going to be a wonderful film, and I knew that I wanted to make it as good of a novelization as I could to be at least close to on par with it.

So, thank you for that and I hope I did. I know it’s touched a lot of people. I’ve saved all of those letters, I have hundreds. People would sit down and take the time to write and say, “This book moved me and impacted my life and it helped me make decisions, and think about certain things in a different way.” It’s almost like feeling like a good teacher. And I’m not a good teacher. [laughing] Some are, my oldest is a professor at Dartmouth.

Fieldhouse:
There have been two filmings of A Separate Peace. The one done in the 1970’s was filmed at Dartmouth. So you’re more connected than you think.

NHK: You know what I did know that. Isn’t that funny? Small world.

Fieldhouse: For people in Germany and France in particular, I presume they would have seen the movie subtitled. So for them it would have been the opportunity to experience it in their own language for the first time, in a way. It may have been more impactful.

NHK: I think that’s true.

Fieldhouse: I’ve read 15 or so novelizations; they’re typically quick reads and if I enjoyed the movie I’m somewhat fascinated by the “reverse” process of turning it into a book and what they’re trying to achieve. Yours, going away, was the best one. Did you go back and read The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace before writing it?

NHK: Thank you. I didn’t go back and re-read them. I went back through them and skimmed them, just to see the how and what.

But I didn’t want to be influenced in my style. I didn’t want those stories to influence Mr. Keating’s story, either. I’m familiar with them. But it was a long time since I read them as a student[laughing]. I felt as a story it needed its own platform.

Fieldhouse: That was smart; you know whatever you’re reading at the time of writing is having an impact, be it positive or negative. So, just what you’re saying, perusal served you well in that awareness is good. Immersion would have been too much.

NHK: I didn’t want to repeat it. It was a separate book, a separate story, a separate work. His [Robin Williams as Mr. Keating’s] words had a right to be respected and I had a great deal of respect for them. I wanted to familiarize myself with the genre but I wanted it to be my version.

Fieldhouse: It worked.

NHK: You know the interesting thing was, for that novelization they decided I should be “N.H.” Kleinbaum rather than Nancy. So there would be a more “universal” appeal. A teen boy might not want to read a book by a female author.

Fieldhouse:  That is interesting.

NHK: I don’t know, but it’s fine. [laughing]

– Tom Flynn

* In memoriam, Robin Williams 1951-2014 *

Interview: "The Lost Men" Author, Kelly Tyler-Lewis

The Lost Men

Baltimore (Feb. 17, 2014) – Some at the Sochi Games who’ve complained about the state of their accommodations, while not entirely without cause, would do well to read the The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis for needed perspective on comfortable lodging.

The book describes the valiant efforts of the Ross Sea Party (RSP), who a century ago supported Ernest Shackleton’s attempted journey across Antarctica by laying food depots for the latter part of his trip from the far side of his planned route. While there, their vessel, the Aurora, broke free of its moorings with much of their food and supplies aboard, leaving part of the RSP stranded on the continent.

Shackleton failed in achieving his ambitions, but was spectacularly successful in returning his men safely home after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice before ever reaching Antarctica. Their story became legend.

The RSP’s efforts ultimately were successful, if in vain, but came at a dire cost and in conditions nearly too severe to imagine, let alone withstand. Consider Tyler-Lewis’s description of the “accommodations” of some of the men as they traveled overland to lay the depots for Shackleton.

The temperature was dropping markedly with the advancing season, hovering around zero degrees….The damp was inescapable. Their clothing never completely dried and the wet garments rendered them far more vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. In the cold night air, the steam from cooking froze on the tent walls. An incautious jostle showered frost down on their heads. Perspiration and breath froze, forming an icy rime that thawed from body heat and soaked their woolens and fur sleeping bags….Mornings became a grievous trial as they struggled to don their stiff clothes and boots.

Fieldhouse spoke with Ms. Tyler-Lewis about The Lost Men and how she came to offer such a riveting account of the heroic efforts of men largely forgotten by history. The interview was conducted via phone and e-mail and edited for length and clarity.

Fieldhouse: I first learned of Shackleton when I went to see an exhibit at National Geographic in DC about 15 years ago on George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest. On the walls they also had photographs from Shackleton’s trip.

KTL: Yes, the Hurley photographs from the glass plate negatives that they saved.

Fieldhouse: So that was my route to Shackleton and it sounds like your route to The Lost Men was also via Shackleton but through his book South.

KTLYes, reading Shackleton’s South and then reading Shackleton and the Antarctic by Margery Turner Fisher and James Fisher. They mentioned the Ross Sea Party in the Fisher biography in passing and that sounded very intriguing. They actually had a footnote in the book that said, “this is a story that deserves further research and consideration.”

That piqued my interest that these biographers were marking that out and saying that it hadn’t been done yet.

So in the early 1990’s I started rooting around in archives and looking in that direction and feeling sure that I was going to discover that it had by then been done. I was surprised that nothing thorough and comprehensive had been published.

Fieldhouse: In the choice of title you were alluding partially to the fact that they were largely lost to history.

KTL: Yes, the expedition was eclipsed by Shackleton’s feat on the Endurance for a number of reasons. Shackleton was a national hero, so he was naturally in the spotlight. The story of the ship and its men was breathtaking, so it’s not surprising.

Another element of it is that the Endurance story was so visual. They did save those beautiful glass plate negatives and so there was this really tantalizing and stunning eyewitness material that didn’t exist for the RSP.

There are some photographs for the RSP but they are more rough and rudimentary and primitive images. Another factor was that the men of the RSP were quite modest, and modest about their achievements, and didn’t set out to put themselves in the spotlight.

They knew their mission was to be the support team and they didn’t seek the spotlight in the years after the expedition, either.

Fieldhouse: A presumably enjoyable part of writing the book was the contact that you had with the descendants of the RSP. For some of these men, even within the narrow confines of their family, their story was lost. 

 KTL: Absolutely. To begin with I had to do genealogical research to find the families, because they did not seek attention after the passing of their fathers or uncles or whomever had been on the expedition.

So it was a task to find them all or a good number of them in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. They were very generous in sharing family material and I was able to share material with them that they found very illuminating. They were justifiably proud when they learned the full scope of what their ancestors had done.

One of the most amazing things was interviewing Aeneas Mackintosh’s (the RSP’s commander) daughter, Elizabeth Dowler, who was still alive when I was first doing my research and she just passed on. She was a lovely, gracious, wonderful woman and I tremendously enjoyed interviewing her.

She was born after the expedition left British shores and her mother was pregnant and of course her father didn’t come home. But Joseph Stenhouse (the RSP’s first officer) took it upon himself to go and help the family and look after her mother who was a widow at that point. He wound up years later falling in love with her mother and became her stepfather.

She had many wonderful memories to share about Stenhouse as her father.

Fieldhouse: You wrote of the friction between Mackintosh and crew member Ernest Joyce and various other members at times. I was curious as to the laws governing the crew and their impetus to complete their task. It wasn’t a Royal Naval vessel but still had a chain of command. I wondered what would be the consequences of mutiny on such a trip.

KTL: They were primarily merchant marines, and Ernest Wild and Joyce were the only former Royal Navy seamen aboard the ship. It would have influenced how they worked and viewed authority, but not overall command. Mackintosh and Stenhouse were from the mercantile marine, so there wouldn’t have been a Royal Navy flavor to the expedition as there was with Robert Scott’s.

Mackintosh had his disputes with Joyce but he never labeled it as mutiny and never took it to discipline him as such, however, aboard the ship.

Two of the men toward the end of the drift of the ship after it broke free, actually suddenly decided to mutiny. They were arrested upon landing but all charges were dropped.

What was interesting was while having no compulsion at their back, just how dedicated to duty they were. After the Aurora had torn out of its mooring and disappeared one night, the men who were remaining in the hut on shore sat and had a discussion about what they were going to do.

Most of the supplies were still aboard the ship, as they had primarily unloaded Shackleton’s provisions, which they had decided not to touch for their own nutrition. They had their clothes they stood up in and very little else at their disposal.

It was wonderful to have multiple diaries to talk about what they discussed, and I think at that moment I was reading four different diaries with an account of that event. They were all unanimous and they all stated that they were so in deciding that they were going to complete their mission. They believed that Shackleton and the lives of his men depended on them. There was no question in their mind, there was no argument, there was no discussion.

I got a draft of that chapter back from my editor, and the editor said “Really? There was no discussion? This is unbelievable.”

In our minds, our 21st century minds, it’s really hard to conceive of someone who would say “It’s our duty, and no matter how hamstrung we are, we’re going to do this.”

I think the assumption is that people would say, “Are you kidding? This is beyond the pale. I’m not going to do this.” But they did.

Fieldhouse: You’d written that the dogs needed a visual marker as incentive to continue to proceed when pulling the sledges to lay the depots. The men’s invisible marker was knowing that if they didn’t get the food depots out there, Shackleton would starve.

I read that you’ve been down to Antarctica, so you would know how hard it must have been to have a goal so firmly fixed in what would have been at times a blank landscape. It must have taken such determination in the vast whiteness to say, “Our mission is this, I can’t see it, but we absolutely have to complete it.”

KTLYes, you have to see it and also the landscape can be very illusory. You can look across McMurdo Sound to some mountains that appear to be a three-mile walk. I remember when I was there on my fellowship a scientist saying, “That’s actually fifty-four miles.”

You lose perspective with the clear atmosphere and the lack of a frame of reference. They had some familiarity because they were taking a route into the interior that Scott had followed roughly and that Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition had followed.

However, they had only done brief running surveys and when they got out near the Beardmore Glacier, they looked at this array of mountains and they had incomplete maps, and so it was really quite bewildering which course to take.

It was fortunate that they were so diligent with their navigation. Because it really was kind of walking blind at a certain point.

Fieldhouse: Just the simplicity of depth perception in such an environment was difficult, but that’s what makes the book and the story so compelling.

KTL: I think ultimately they were ordinary men, doing the extraordinary. That’s what I found so compelling and appealing about the story.

There’s a 22-year old schoolteacher, a Navy man, a merchant seaman, a scientist. A number of the guys were just out of college, just finished their training, and only two of them had experience with the Antarctic in the past.

They were quite modest and unassuming guys, and it’s amazing what they managed to achieve. In the end, the journey they completed, it was the only successful part of Shackleton’s expedition. And it was completely successful.

They laid every one of those depots, and in the process they made – this period of time was called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – the longest journey in duration of anyone during this period of time, including Scott and Roald Amundson.

In terms of distance, their journey ranked right up there with Scott and Amundson’s. It was not an insignificant achievement. It was a breathtaking achievement.

Fieldhouse: Your book reminded me of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon in that you both located journals from the respective trips that were critical.  You excerpted language from the journals for context of the period. But the ability to take their language and essentially put it in a contemporary voice is critical in making it meaningful today. Their “voice” is not as distant and gets renewed. In this case, you had a story that wasn’t renewed because much of it had been forgotten.

KTLI spoke at the Explorer’s Club in New York shortly after my book came out and Candice Millard was speaking there the week after me, when I first heard of her book. It sounded fantastic.

When I started my research, two authors had published books on the Ross Sea Party, but they were handicapped by not having access to more diaries. An author named Lennard Bickel, for one, but he only had access to three diaries and logs and when I started my research I thought that’s all there was. Dick Richards, a physicist in the RSP, published a slim volume about 30-pages long laying down the story from his point of view. But I thought I would keep digging and see if I could find more supporting correspondence and other materials.

I dug and did genealogical research and I was frankly amazed to find 16 of the diaries.

Fieldhouse: That’s incredible.

KTL: Yes, then it became an embarrassment of riches and how to deal with it. It became a much more challenging job to deal with that level of material.

But it gave me an advantage. I don’t like to go out on a limb about people’s motivations, I don’t like to impute motivations to people that aren’t there. I felt it so much more meaningful that people could tell their story in their own words.

And you could see multiple viewpoints of the same incident. You would get the Rashoman effect from reading these multiple viewpoints. But sifting through you start to get a feel for people and their motivations and why and how things were happening, that also gave me much more material to tell the story in a narrative way.

My goal was to write a piece of narrative non-fiction that had a storytelling pace.

Fieldhouse: You talk about an embarrassment of riches, it’s not as if it was a story in which you had to figure out two people. You had a real crew there both literally and figuratively to integrate.

KTL: 28 people, yes.

Fieldhouse: Not a small task.

KTL: But I also feel very fortunate that I was able to find the material to be able to do what I did. It was really important to withhold judgment and try as much as possible to understand people’s driving motivation. Rather than judging and saying “this is a poor leader, he’s a flawed individual.”

First of all, looking at their accomplishments, and having spent time in the Antarctic, and thinking about myself, I’m quite clear, that I couldn’t have done what they did.

I don’t think I could have marched 1,400 nautical miles with rags on my back, even to save someone else’s life. I would like to think that I was that person. However many flaws they may have had, that was a deeply admirable thing to do. So I really needed to stand back and try to appreciate each of their perspectives and also honor who they were. By steeping myself as much as possible in each of their points of view if that makes sense.

Fieldhouse: It does.

KTL: I have to say it was a real pleasure to write the book. It was humbling to be in their company but it was a joy to be in their company. I spent over 10 years on the research.

After the book was finished, and a year after the the book was published, I would start opening the diaries and re-reading them and I realized at a certain point that these people had been a constant in my life and their voices were in my head on a daily basis. It was a sad moment to realize that they would not be part of my daily life anymore, because they were really admirable people.

Fieldhouse: It’s a hardship story and there is no sugarcoating because there’s not a lot of room to sugarcoat how difficult that was. Reading the book, it felt good, knowing those attributes could be in Everyman, and “spending time” with them. It propels you forward to find out more about what were essentially good men. 

KTLIt would be difficult to spend that much time with someone disagreeable, wouldn’t it? The folks who have read the book find them inspiring. A gentleman from Malta read the book, and he was surprised to read that the RSP’s Ernest Wild later died on a ship in Malta while serving in World War I.

So he sought out and discovered the grave. Wild’s family is in England, and he was so moved by the story, that he has appointed himself as caretaker of the grave. So he cleans the headstone and he brings flowers to the headstone every year, he and his wife. It’s a testament to how inspiring these men were. I was so enormously touched by that.

Fieldhouse:  These men were doing something so far outside the comfortable, which they found rewarding. Today we have so many creature comforts, that the notion is almost inconceivable that people would seek out such hardship. Dean Karnazes, the ultra-marathon runner, had a great quote on how we’ve essentially come to equate comfort to happiness, when in fact too much can make you miserable. 

KTL: You’re reminding me of something that Irvine Gaze of the RSP wrote. I’m writing an essay right now for an event on stewardship in the Antarctic, with the idea of care-taking of the environment there. So I’m writing something relating the Ross Sea Party to that. There was a wonderful quote that I’m going to include in it from Gaze in March 1915, after he endured the first grueling season of sledging.

“It’s quite impossible as a matter of fact for me to give even a faint impression of the wonder and beauty of this place, it’s quite beyond anyone, except the most gifted. No doubt there are times when one simply longs for civilization again with its attendant comfort and luxury…but these fits don’t last and you thank your lucky stars that you’re down here, living a real life.”

– Tom Flynn

The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis (photo / thelostmen.com)

 

Books: City of Thieves by David Benioff


David Benioff’s City of Thieves (courtesy / Penguin Group)

Here in Maryland temperatures have dipped down into the single digits and City of Thieves by David Benioff is a needed reminder that our worst weather days, or days of any kind, are far better than most of those of WWII. Especially those in Russia.
Benioff prefaces his novel, originally published in 2008, with a conversation with his grandfather, Lev Beniov. There’s some real-world confusion around the extent of the elder Benioff/Beniov’s basis in reality. In the end it proves an unimportant aside; Lev’s story is either entirely fictional or some very slight measure less. Either way, it’s one worth hearing.
A 17-year old Lev is imprisoned early in the book during the Siege of Leningrad, the German blockade of the city that began in the fall of 1941. His crime: “looting” the body of a frozen German paratrooper who drifts, still in his parachute, into Lev’s besieged neighborhood. Beniov is thrown into prison where he meets a Red Army deserter and fellow prisoner, Kolya Vlasov. Kolya and Lev presumably await the same fate the next day: execution.
The two surprisingly receive a stay of execution on the condition they can complete a whimsical request of an NKVD officer to find and return a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the officer’s daughter. 
So begins their quest in a city that is starving to death en masse.

They manage to venture beyond the encircled city where the bitter cold and lack of food persist, and the likelihood of being killed by Germans only increases. 

Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg, or as Lev calls it, Piter, is the most Russian of cities and Hitler wants its buildings and populace obliterated. The brutality and totality of the siege are to punctuate his ability to subjugate a nation, its culture, and of course, its people. 


Benioff knows his Russian history and nuance yet writes in an accessible, contemporary manner without it appearing overtly so. Most Russian novels popular in the West carry a certain literary solemnity that rarely merits them “great beach read” accolades. Fortunately with City of Thieves, Benioff balances the weight of this legacy on both shoulders, alternating between the tragic and the comedic of Russian life in a way that few have managed nearly as well. 

Books: Unforgettable Football

(Photo courtesy / Earl Shores)

The Unforgettable Buzz:The History of Electric Football and Tudor Games is enjoyable on so many levels that it’s a challenge to herald any aspect of the book without inadvertently slighting another.

Foremost it is a thoroughly researched and readable history of an iconic American toy, electric football, and its founding company, Tudor Games.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Authors Earl Shores and Roddy Garcia have done such a brilliant job of using the game as a lens for viewing so many aspects of American life – including the rise of merchandising, professional football, and television – that foremost it may be a history lesson cleverly disguised as a book about a toy.

Or maybe it’s a fascinating look at the often uneasy marriage of manufacturing and creativity, one so seldom explored when considering the ‘stuff’ that permeates and defines our American lives.

Funny that I didn’t notice all these nuances before. After all, I first played the game in 1971, when I was still so young that the only other electrical device in the house that I could use without parental oversight may have been my night light.

But I was just a kid, simply enjoying his favorite game. One that helped me escape to a world where the woeful New York Giants of the era managed to always win, at least when I was captaining both teams.

Shores and Garcia have thankfully given readers another guaranteed winner. – TF

Books: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

(Photo / M. Evans)
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. The United States of America by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace largely focuses on the greatest heavyweight boxer in history’s impact outside of the ring. Originally published in 2000, the paperback version released this year corresponds to the airing of the recent HBO movie of the same name. 
Bingham is a long-time friend of Ali’s and his previous work includes a photographic history of the boxer. In this book, Bingham and Wallace take on the formidable task of assessing the facets of Ali’s resistance as a conscientious objector to induction into the US Army during the Vietnam War.

The timing of Ali’s ascent as a boxer closely corresponded to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the early 1960’s. Born as Cassius Clay in Louisville, the outspoken fighter first made known his membership in the Nation of Islam (which ultimately led to his conscientious objector appeal) in 1961.

The Nation of Islam’s founding is attributed to W.D Fard, who tirelessly preached its doctrine during the Depression. Through his street corner platform he found an apt pupil in Elijah Poole, who later assumed the name Elijah Muhammad and greatly grew the Nation’s following through the strength of his convictions and personality. 

It is at the crossroads of the Nation’s belief of strict segregation with the integrative efforts of the Civil Rights Movement that Cassius Clay claimed the heavyweight crown by defeating Sonny Liston in February, 1964. Another of Elijah Muhammad’s followers, Malcolm X, is an early adviser to Ali, but X later becomes disenchanted with Elijah while Ali remains faithful to the Nation’s leader.
In early 1965, after Malcom X had severed ties with the Nation of Islam, he was assassinated by the group’s members in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. It is during this period of religious in-fighting within the Nation of Islam and increased resistance to the Vietnam War that Ali is drafted into the army.

His resistance to the draft became a lightning rod for racism, as well as some genuine resentment over what appeared to be preferential treatment from the government due to his celebrity status. Bingham and Wallace do a worthy job revealing that Ali may have received special treatment after being drafted, but it was hardly of the preferential variety.

Others saw Ali’s resistance as evolving, but strongly premised on objections to fighting a war for a country that openly treated African-Americans as second class citizens. Critical to Ali’s defense when brought to trial for resisting the draft was his developing opposition to all wars as a follower of Islam, and not specifically to fighting in Vietnam.

The authors firmly back the Champ as a man of genuine conviction, and to their credit they do so while telling the story with a largely even hand. They rightfully question Elijah Muhammad and the extent to which the Nation of Islam, along with a throng of other handlers, plundered the young Ali of millions in prize money. Malcolm X is, on the balance, presented as a man of significantly sturdier moral conviction than Elijah.

The book in the end does a fine job sifting through the witches’ brew of issues surrounding Ali’s resistance: civil rights, war resistance, and religious freedom, among others. What are the defining characteristics of a religion that make it legitimate? The authors, without digressing from the book’s tight chronological narrative, pose the question. And despite substantiating Ali’s religious convictions as genuine don’t shy away from revealing some of the more arcane beliefs of the Nation of Islam when it was founded.

The events in the book are distant enough that younger readers may not know the outcome of Ali’s case, which ultimately made it to the Supreme Court. Rather than convey it here, those with an interest would do well to pick up a copy of Wallace & Bingham’s book. – TF