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Published: Scotland on Sunday (The Week) 4 March 2012

The Ice Balloon
by Alec Wilkinson
Fourth Estate, £14.99

ON 11 JULY 1897, at 2.30pm, the Swedish aeronaut Salomon August Andrée and his assistants, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, took off from the island of Svalbard in a 94ft-tall, tonne-and-a-half hydrogen balloon, heading for the North Pole. Their aim was to fly directly over the pole, becoming the first people ever to set eyes on it, and then land safely in Canada, Siberia or Alaska, where the locals had been warned to look out for them. Things didn’t go according to plan, however. Sixty-five hours and 33 minutes later, on 14 July, they were forced to land on sea ice, 300 miles north of their starting point but still 300 miles short of the pole. All three men perished approximately three months later while attempting to march south to safety.

Those are the bald facts of the Andrée story, and in this artfully written but ultimately frustrating book, New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson never succeeds in getting very far beyond them. Early on, Wilkinson hints at the unknowable nature of his subject. “Figures from history occasionally rise up from the page as if they had merely been waiting for someone to speak to them,” he writes. “Andrée comes to life a little resentfully, as if interrupted.” Andrée may indeed be a bit of an enigma, but I’m not sure that’s an excuse for the rather cursory treatment he receives here. The book is already slight at just 231 pages, yet Wilkinson devotes a considerable chunk of it (29 pages) to describing the Arctic adventures of American explorer Adolphus Greely from 1881 and 1884, and a further 16 pages to the travails of Nansen on his Fram expedition of 1893 to 1896. The miraculous survival of American navigator George Tyson and a group from the Polaris expedition of 1871 gets 14 pages.

Some reviewers have suggested this is merely Wilkinson putting his subject in context, but it all seems rather disproportionate. Greely is relevant to the Andrée story only in the sense that he had criticised his plan for a balloon flight to the pole. Nansen’s story is worth re-telling because he and Andrée were both racing to reach the pole at the same time, but still, do we really need to hear about it in quite so much detail? Having spent 60-odd pages talking about other people’s expeditions, Wilkinson devotes just 30 pages to telling the story of Andrée and Co’s attempts to escape from the ice.

Was there more to say on Andrée? Absolutely. Even if nothing further could be gleaned from the journals he and the others left behind (their remains were eventually discovered in 1930), mention could surely have been made of his cultural impact – Olof Sundman’s semi-documentary novel of 1967, The Flight Of The Eagle, for example, or the Oscar-nominated film based on the book, directed by Jan Troell. And as far as context goes, surely a little more on the history and mechanics of balloon travel would have given a better sense of what Andrée was up against.

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