Shipwrecked: Four Against the Arctic – David Roberts

06 Apr

While reading Valerian Albanov’s In the Land of White Death, David Roberts came across the mention of an old legend of four shipwrecked Russian sailors who had managed to survive six years stranded on a barren island in the high Arctic. Incredulous, Roberts – an expert on exploration literature who had never heard of this account – was determined to learn the truth behind this extraordinary story. Little did he know that his search would ultimately bring him closer to the experiences of these four survivors than he had imagined. In 1743 four survivors of a Russian shipwreck in the Arctic Ocean were trapped on a tiny island with only twenty pounds of flour for food. With ingenuity and courage they endured six years of nearly unimaginable hardship, with only driftwood to fuel their life-saving fires, and the constant threat of attack from polar bears (they would kill ten with homemade lances). Roberts’s quest to document their story would take him across two continents and culminate in his own expedition to the remote and desolate shores where these mysterious sailors had been marooned. Riveting and haunting, Four Against the Arctic chronicles an incredible true story.

I love a good story about people forced to meet nature head on with courage and resourcefulness so I saved this book for the cold days and it finally got its much anticipated reading last winter.  As a reviewer, I like to try to find positive points in all the books I read, things that may interest anybody who is undecided about it but this one did have me struggling to find something to praise.

It all starts with the misleading cover, it has everything you want from a travel cover, a title that makes you want to enjoy the suffering of others, a seagull and a nice font.  The trouble is that this is not the advertised story of shipwrecked survivors but of one man’s attempts to find out more about it and regale you with his experiences in detail, lots of detail and most of it irrelevant at that.

There is scant information to be had on the original story so the book feels very stretched, there is too much padding in its 288 pages and it quickly becomes a drag to read.  Although I love an author going through dusty tomes and probing to find the elusive facts of which I usually feel like I’m a part of discovering them, the author’s manner ruins it.  Roberts at times comes across as sneery, pompous and aloof as well as having a tendency towards self-aggrandisement which is rather off-putting.

The good points then of which there are a couple, the book is of good quality and feels nice to hold and there are some good obscure historical facts to be had, most notably on whaling around Spitzbergen.  That is not enough though for me to recommend the book though unless you are a committed travel reader and have enough patience with the author to persevere, I did but only so you wouldn’t have to.

The problem with the book is that I didn’t feel like I learnt much more by the end, than I had after the first couple of chapters.  It’s just a disappointing read that lacks pace and excitement and is overly bloated with needless information.  A much bloodier but fascinating and readable book about shipwreckees would be Batavia’s Graveyard written by Mike Dash which I devoured in two sittings.


Posted by on 06/04/2015 in History, Travel


Tags: , , , , ,

26 responses to “Shipwrecked: Four Against the Arctic – David Roberts

  1. Alastair Savage

    06/04/2015 at 11:55

    It’s so frustrating to find a book that’s full of padding like that! It looks amazing from the cover. In terms of Arctic literature, I do like Shackleton’s accounts of his escape from the Antarctic with those descriptions of the dark killer whales gliding past their canoes by night…


    • Alastair Savage

      06/04/2015 at 11:56

      Have you done of review of Batavia’s Graveyard by the way? It sounds good.


      • Ste J

        06/04/2015 at 11:58

        Yes it’s by Mike Dash and should be up on my newly changed A-F of authors, I should have put that in the post really, I’m slipping with chocolate overload.


    • Ste J

      06/04/2015 at 12:00

      I actually chose this over Shackleton’s account as I thought it’s obscure nature would be of more interest to people as it was something new, it’s a shame it wasn’t a worthy companion in terms of interest.


  2. leapingtracks

    06/04/2015 at 14:33

    You are right that the cover is awesome – what a pity that the innards do not live up to the exterior promise.


    • Ste J

      06/04/2015 at 19:31

      I suppose you really can never judge a book by his cover, luckily it only cost me £2.99 from an old barn that had been converted into a book shop.


      • leapingtracks

        06/04/2015 at 20:13

        The art of book covers is a fascinating one. I always find it so interesting to see the different jackets produced for marketing the same book in different countries, for example.


  3. shadowoperator

    06/04/2015 at 14:54

    I’m not a good travel reader. Even though I did my Ph.D. thesis on Henry James, I didn’t like his book “Italian Hours,” which has been praised for its lovely language and artistic descriptions. It’s just, I always get the feeling that you enjoy reading travel literature more if you’ve actually been there and can compare your experiences with those of the writer. And man, am I glad I’ve never been in the Arctic or Antarctica! I’m too sensitive to cold for that to be a good travel destination. But I think of you as very game for being willing to try to read the book, despite your feelings about the author.


    • Ste J

      06/04/2015 at 19:50

      I’ll give anything a go, me…well within reason you understand. I like to imagine myself on a madcap mission, if I had the funds and an idea I would do something outlandish for a book. The colder places would be good conversation starters at parties but yeah, it would require many pairs of thermals. I did keep hoping the book would get better, that there would be the redeeming factor that made it worthwhile but never mind, you can’t win ’em all!


  4. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    06/04/2015 at 17:16

    IF I ever get through Flatland (I AM off the first page) then maybe I’ll try “Batavia’s Graveyard,” after your review of “Shipwrecked: Four Against the Arctic,” I certainly won’t be giving that one a go. My curiosity is piqued however, by the fate of the 4 men who were indeed shipwrecked…that they survived for 6 years is awe inspiring.


    • Ste J

      06/04/2015 at 19:36

      It is made even more fascinating because they only nipped off the ship to do some hunting so didn’t have much in the way of equipment. Batavia’s Graveyard does have a lot of violence in it but because it is true it is a worthwhile read. I’m pleased to see you are giving Flatland and other books I mention a go. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.


  5. gargoylebruce

    06/04/2015 at 22:21

    Blurb manipulation – one of the major crimes of our time. I hear ya.


    • Ste J

      10/04/2015 at 11:43

      There should be some sort of precedent made against the perpetrators.


      • gargoylebruce

        12/04/2015 at 07:32

        Indeed. Locked in a room with Prince Phillip for all eternity perhaps.


  6. Sherri

    07/04/2015 at 14:37

    Well you had me there my friend…as I read the intro I was thinking ‘what a great book this sounds, I love true accounts like this’ and then I read your review. Sounds very disappointing indeed, I take my hat off to you for sticking with it…


    • Ste J

      10/04/2015 at 11:44

      I love books like this usually as well, that’s why I stayed relentlessly with it but reading a bad one not only makes me appreciate the ones I love but also stops me from being complacent which is always a positive.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. clarepooley33

    08/04/2015 at 09:22

    It’s a pity that some authors and publishers are allowed to get away with such a deceptive title. The blurb also encourages you to think that we will be finding out about the Russians by way of Roberts rather than the other way round. Do you often find that blurbs are written by someone who has only read the first few pages and then skipped through the rest?


    • Ste J

      10/04/2015 at 11:49

      Yes, that is precisely it, they read an introduction or perhaps get a rough outline from somebody else and write it up to sound better. I hate it when the blurb gives everything away as well, it’s annoying. I have got to the point of reading blog posts and deciding from there, it’s usually safer.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. writersideup

    10/04/2015 at 04:26

    Ste J, I have to tell you—I give you credit for pushing through to the end, but am so sorry your time was spent with something that left you feeling so “empty.” Unlike you, I no longer have the patience to read books that don’t offer me enough of what I want. Books are a big investment of time. It’s one of the many reasons I won’t review books! I read too slow and want to be able to put a book down when I want/need to move on. You certainly do persevere! And I appreciate your honesty, for sure!


    • Ste J

      10/04/2015 at 12:05

      I tend to stop if a book doesn’t grab me after a decent amount of time but with this I assumed there would be a redeeming bit due to the promise of the story. I think it is good to come across bad books every so often to be able to appreciate the good ones. It pays to be honest with reviews, otherwise people won’t come back and read more of my stuff which would make me sadder than Eeyore.


  9. anna amundsen

    14/04/2015 at 18:07

    I love it when you’re trying to find good things to say about a (relatively) bad books – “the book is of good quality and feels nice to hold”! Hilarious!!


    • Ste J

      14/04/2015 at 19:20

      It was a challenge with this book, I had t think long and hard, could have been worse it could have been a romance book, I struggle to say anything on those ones.


    • writersideup

      14/04/2015 at 19:56

      Anna, I actually had the same reaction, but didn’t state it! lol


  10. Lindeke

    10/12/2016 at 17:10

    Dear Ste J, do you by any chance know where/how I can find the original story of these 4 shipwrecked sailors and/or their own notes about this?


    • Ste J

      12/12/2016 at 15:20

      I have since given the book away but if I remember rightly, he had to go to a library in Russia to read it and it was written in Russian as well as I seem to remember the author taking every opportunity to remind us he was a bit fluent in said language.



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