Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World

by Andrew C. Revkin

Boston: Kingfisher Press128 p. with illus.

ISBN 2-46819-97531

Looking at Pole while there’s still an ice cap

New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin has covered climate change and climate politics for 20 years. During the past three years, he has visited the Arctic on three occasions, explored and written about the Amazon River and has reported extensively on the Asian tsnami disaster. He has written two previous books - The Burning Season, a New York Notable Book of the Year in 1990, and Global Warming. He has won several awards for his journalism.

The North Pole Was Here chronicles Revkin’s recent trip to the North Pole, where he followed a research team studying the relationship between the dwindling ice cap and global warming. Full-color photos and other images support Revkin’s cogent discussions of polar history and science.  The book, however, seems to concentrate on his vivid travel experiences and appears to be targeted at a youthful audience. Excerpts from the Times tend to disrupt the flow of Revkin’s central narrative, but do not distract from it, in fact, add to the book’s appeal:

The frenzy peaked in 1909, when two men separately claimed that they had reached the North Pole by dogsled.  On September 1 that year. Dr. Frederick A. Cook, an American physician and seasoned mountaineer and polar adventurer, showed up in Europe after two years in the Arctic and announced that he had reached the North Pole on April21, 1908. Just four days later, a long-anticipated message was wired via Labrador in far northern Canada by the American navy commander Robert E. Peary, another veteran Arctic trekker, stating that he had planted the Stars and Stripes at the pole on April 6, 1909. Cook was being toasted at a banquet in Copenhagen with a garland of roses draped around his neck when-the news about Peary’s claim swept the hall.  Cook publicly congratulated the man he considered second at the North Pole.

Cook had been the expedition doctor on several of Peary’s earlier Arctic forays, setting the bones in Peary’s badly broken leg on one trip. But from that September on, and for decades to come, the two men and their camps of defenders battled over their competing claims of being first at the top of the world.

Cook was more at home with Eskimos and ice than the spotlight and celebrity, so he generally got the worst of it. He was quickly discredited in most circles after facing harsh attacks in the press from Peary and his supporters. Peary, in contrast, knew two U.S. presidents and was comfortable in high society. His case was strongly favored by the National Geographic Society, which supported his expedition, and The New York Times, which had loaned Peary $4,000 in return for exclusive access to his story (the equivalent of about $92,000 in 2005).

Revkin discusses the Cook-Peary controversy, describing Dr. Cook as a “reasoned mountaineer and polar adventurer”. He briefly describes the personalities of the two explorers much to the benefit of Dr. cook, but he carefully avoids a verdict concerning the controversy, leaving that to the polar scientists. Revkin includes a copy of a New York Times 1997 article by Warren Leary which is a review of the book by Robert M. Bryce on Cook and Peary.

The book, directed toward intermediate readers but a good collector’s item for any Polar buff, is lavishly illustrated with charts, maps, reproductions of 19th and early 20thcentury exploration and a comprehensive present-day overview of the changing nature of the north Polar cap. There are many fine color prints that are worth the price of this small book. 

-Ralph Myerson, MD


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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society