The hard challenge that defeats Niven: making an exciting story when morbidity and cheap behavior are the main ingredients....



The grim tale of an Arctic expedition that had “doomed” stamped on it from the start, told (at times over-told) by Niven (The Ice Master, not reviewed).

“She was a young and unskilled woman who headed into the Arctic in search of money and a husband,” Niven writes of Ada Blackjack. What Blackjack hadn’t bargained on, and what gives Niven’s story what zing it has, is that famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had decided, without any authority, that Wrangel Island ought to be a British possession and that “any claim that might have belonged to the Russians or the Americans had lapsed.” The island would make a nifty air base, a possible radio and meteorological station, and be helpful in nipping Japanese imperial aspirations. Stefansson put together the expedition with four men and Blackjack—the team’s seamstress—and intimated that he, too, would be among the explorers, though he had no intention of traveling with the group. The team soon found that Wrangel was an acquired taste: gloomy, rocky, cloudy, stormy, icy, and damn cold. When things started getting difficult (Niven suggests that the unpredictable Blackjack was suffering from “Arctic Hysteria”) and the supply ship failed to materialize—Stefansson had run out of money—three of the men struck out for Nome, leaving Blackjack with the remaining scurvy-ruined member. Two years later, Blackjack alone met the rescue party—heroic, and yet Niven fails to lift Blackjack’s achievement out of the tedium of days: gathering wood, hunting, caring for a man who took a long time to die. There’s little transport in the details—“On April 24, she washed her hair”—and the resulting brouhaha over the expedition’s diaries serves only to highlight the tawdriness of the affair.

The hard challenge that defeats Niven: making an exciting story when morbidity and cheap behavior are the main ingredients. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2003

ISBN: 0-7868-6863-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Hyperion

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2003

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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