Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole

by Bruce Henderson

W.W. Norton & Co. $24.95

ISBN 0393057917 288 p

True North: a real Cook and Peary 
emerge in a new ‘race to the pole’ account

Controversy about the 1908/1909 discovery of the North Pole has raged for 95 years, and generated enough books and articles to fill a fair-sized library. Bruce Henderson, the latest author to make a literary contribution, differs in several ways from prior writers on this subject. First of all, he is a highly acclaimed researcher and bestselling author, with additional credentials as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer and university journalism professor. Secondly, he is no stranger to polar research and writing. His 2001 book, Fatal North: Adventure and Survival Aboard USS Polaris, the First U.S. Expedition to the North Pole, is the best and most complete account of the last expedition of Charles Francis Hall to northernmost Greenland. Last but certainly not least, he enters the controversy without any ties to either Admiral Robert E. Peary or Dr. Frederick A. Cook that enables him to render an impartial judgment on the merits of the rival claimants.

The concept for this book came from noted writer, George Plimpton, who encouraged the author to undertake the task of relating this famous tale of polar exploration for a new generation of readers. As with most researchers on the North Pole controversy, the author no doubt soon discovered that the project was much larger and more complex than first envisioned. During the past 15 years, a literal archival mountain of original source documents has opened new perspectives on the Arctic expeditions of Peary and Cook, as well as Dr. Cook’s expeditions to Mount McKinley in 1903 and 1906.

Author Henderson presents a dual biography of Peary and Cook from youth through their years of polar exploration and final years of their lives. Utilizing both published works and unpublished material, he lets both Peary and Cook express their personal thoughts, emotions and ambitions. What is most refreshing is that he uses the approach of an honest historian and does not filter or try to superimpose his own personal views on the reader. He meticulously presents and documents the facts, and in the final chapter presents his conclusions.

About two-thirds of the book relates to the expeditions and activities of Peary and Cook prior to 1907. Since the primary object of the volume is to examine the “race” to the North Pole, this would seem to be a disproportionate amount of space for the background of the story. On the other hand, most current readers would not know pertinent details that would have been familiar to most readers ninety years ago.

Compared to prior books on the subject, this new volume certainly is the best in the last fifteen years, and may prove to be the best of all time. The author has combined the thorough research style of Andrew Freeman (The Case for Doctor Cook) and Sir Wally Herbert (The Noose of Laurels) with the exposition skills of a professional historian and writer. Although detailed, this book has good flow and continuity, unlike the nearly unreadable and trivia-filled work of Robert Bryce (Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved) that goes unsold on Internet auction for $1.99. Henderson avoids the deceptive partisanship and propaganda techniques of William Herbert Hobbs (Peary), John Edward Weems (Race for the Pole) or John Edwards Caswell (Arctic Frontiers). Early writers on the subject such as Thomas F. Hall (Has the North Pole Been Discovered?), J. Gordon Hayes (The Conquest of the North Pole), Henshaw Ward (The Peary Myth) and Edwin Swift Balch (The North Pole and Bradley Land) did not have the advantage of viewing the personal papers of Peary, Cook and others who had personal knowledge of the events. Howard Abramson’s book (Hero in Disgrace) was completed and went to press after Peary’s personal files became available to the public, but too early to include Cook’s personal documents.

(Three other books in the 60s mined the controversy, all of them being favorable to Cook’s journey, but each was researched without the documents that would become available through the opening of the respective Cook and Peary papers. They were Theon Wright, The Big Nail; Hugh Eames, Winner Lose All and Farley Mowat, The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole.)

This new book, True North, combines the qualities of excellent historical research with the skill of a good writer. It is a valuable addition to Polar literature and will provide a good starting point for general readers and historians to learn more about the famous Peary-Cook North Pole controversy, or as a starting point to explore specific side issues in the dispute.

~ Ted Heckathorn

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society