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.