Jennifer Niven,
Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic
(Hyperion, 2003)

The story of Ada Blackjack is so remarkable, I'm amazed I've never heard of her before, or in fact that she's not one of those figures whose names we commit to memory from our youngest years. Stranded on a lonely Arctic island, part of an exploration gone fatally wrong, Blackjack displayed a depth of courage that earns her a place among any heroes of the Age of Exploration.

Prepared for only one year on the island, Blackjack and her companions -- Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer and Milton Galle -- found themselves instead battling for survival through two long, lean winters, with no word when relief would come.

Originally hired as part of the expedition only in the capacity of cook and seamstress, Blackjack instead found herself forced to learn hunting, trapping, construction and even nursing skills, as the supplies and hopes of the team began to wane, then disappear.

Jennifer Niven relates Blackjack's story in a frank and straightforward manner, giving detailed accounts of diary entries, communications between the team and the team leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, as well as the families the explorers left behind.

In 1921, Wrangler Island was a desolate and remote location, so much so that even today little has changed there. Stefansson's conviction that any resourceful person could live quite easily off such land was a challenge that the young men of the team were unable to resist. Niven's descriptions of the personalities of these four men creates not just an unforgettable familiarity with them for the reader, but makes clear their enthusiasm for the adventure they undertook. In theory, and in Stefansson's words recounted here by Niven, it is easy to believe that a trek into the Arctic wilds is just as easily undertaken as a cross-country road trip.

Gathering information from archives, letters and memories shared by the explorers' families, Niven shares with us a world of ice and hardship, where only the strongest can survive, and then sometimes not even those.

Though Blackjack never considered herself a hero, undoubtedly she was possessed of strength and determination in uncommon measure. Perhaps she is best represented by her own words, "Brave? I don't know about that. But I would never give up hope while I'm still alive."

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 8 May 2004

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