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Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer
by Michael Smith
443 pages
Oneworld Publications
Published: Oct 2014

Michael Smith’s biography of Ernest Shackleton was the first full biography of this legendary explorer in nearly three decades. Smith is a British author and journalist with a focus on polar exploration. Among his half-dozen other books are “An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean” and “Captain Francis Crozier – Last Man Standing?

Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is best remembered for the dramatic heroics and tragic misfortunes associated with his Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 which resulted in the loss of three men. But this was just one of four such trips he would undertake before he died at the age of 47. During a less star-crossed expedition in 1907 he hoped to be the first person to reach the South Pole but, running critically low on supplies, had to turn back 100 miles short of his goal.

Smith’s narrative is less an intellectual exploration of its subject’s life and far more a tale of the adventures (and misadventures) encountered by Shackleton. In this respect, it is reminiscent of Candice Millard’s excellent “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” documenting the former president’s harrowing odyssey through the Amazon forest.

Much less seems to be known about Ernest’s early life than of his ocean-going adventures, however, so his childhood melts away at a rapid pace – about a page per year. Compared to the rest of the book, the earliest chapters are relatively dull and unremarkable. But once Shackleton is out to sea, both he and the biography find their sea-legs.

The most appealing aspect of this book is undoubtedly Smith’s coverage of Shackleton’s antarctic adventures. The author’s distillation of these journeys proves utterly captivating in nearly every respect – particularly when Shackleton and his men are slogging through snow while cold, wet, hungry and exhausted.

Smith captures the intense internecine rivalries, the strengths and weaknesses of key characters, and the jockeying for social rank quite nicely. Shackleton himself is a marvelously fascinating (and equally confounding) character with two distinct personalities – one on land and the other on water (ocean and ice). Smith captures this dichotomy superbly.

But fans of great biographies will also notice areas where this book falls short. First, Smith’s writing is not consistently observant or colorful. Readers familiar with Caro or McCullough will note occasions when this author could have lingered in a moment and more fully described a scene. But instead of feeling fully enmeshed in Shackleton’s world, the reader more often feels like someone learning about distant events through an interesting news article.

In addition, Smith forgoes most opportunities to educate readers who are not particularly fluent with nautical terminology or technique. And finally, while Smith exposes Shackleton’s strengths and weaknesses brilliantly throughout the text, the narrative tends to employ unnecessary hyperbole at times…particularly in its final chapters.

Overall, Michael Smith has written is a commendable biography of the peculiar and peripatetic Ernest Shackleton. It is primarily a tale of adventure – of peril and perseverance – but it also paints the poignant portrait of an unsettled soul who never quite found what he was seeking.

Overall rating: 4 stars