3/26/24 Book Review: Meredith Hooper’s “The Longest Winter–Scott’s Other Heroes”

This website was never intended for words other than those quoted from the members of the Antarctic exploring parties who risked their lives in the name of science and discovery. However, there is one book so compelling in its subject matter, so detailed and literate in its delivery, that it deserves a mention here, and a wider audience.

The subject matter is the story of Scott’s “Northern Party,” who were initially detailed to explore King Edward VII land and when that goal proved untenable transferred their field of discovery to the continental corner of the Antarctic at the northern verge of the Ross Sea. Many of you are aware of their sojourn at Cape Adare, later extended to the southward at Evans Coves, and the brutally hard winter in an ice-lined burrow on Inexpressible Island. Some of you may be familiar with Raymond Priestley’s diary published as Antarctic Adventure, quoted occasionally in this website one hundred years to the day after his words were written in 1912-13. Others may have encountered the story Victor Campbell published as The Wicked Mate. But until you have read and reread Meredith Hooper’s The Longest Winter, I’m afraid you will not have seen the overview of the whole adventure well and uniquely told.

The Eastern Party (as they called themselves), thwarted in their mission to explore King Edward VII Land, went instead to Cape Adare for their first winter, and were transferred by the Terra Nova in the spring of 1912 to Evans Coves farther south on the coast of Victoria Land. There, after a successful season’s exploration, they found themselves isolated in this barren land, and with the Antarctic winter coming on, holed up (quite literally) in a hand-dug snow cave on what they later called Inexpressible Island. These six men were forced to winter over surviving on the meat and blubber of the seals and penguins they killed in the autumn.

The hardship they endured here beggars description, but the diaries of these men, quoted at length in The Longest Winter, bring to immediate life their struggle to survive. With no fuel but burning blubber, no clothing but those on their backs day and night, no food but the frozen meat of the animals they had killed, they endured. In time the spring would come, and the time to emerge from their dungeon, load their sledges once more, and complete the 250-mile journey to the relative safety and plenty of the Scott expedition’s home base at Cape Evans.

Theirs is a tale of Antarctic survival that rivals all others. Told largely in their own words, it recounts endless months of misery with few regrets, of a growing sense of tolerance and interdependence that in the end demonstrates the enduring capacity of human endeavor to maintain, and to win through against overwhelming odds.

It is to author Meredith Hooper’s credit that she gives them scope to tell their story. She weaves together each of the six personal accounts so that we the readers share their experiences as they happen, colored at times by the diverse lenses of those who are living them. She manages to sidestep the fault-finding that many chroniclers of the Scott expeditions seem to fall into, bringing out a largely unbiased, uncritical accounting of the decisions that brought the Northern Party into their desperate straits. Our view of events is thereby enlarged, and with it our respect for the men involved.

Hooper also looks outside the snow cave, to other fields of endeavor happening in the Antarctic at the exact same time, occasionally quoting from the diaries of other men in the field: Amundsen and Scott on their ways to the Pole, the residents at Cape Evans and Hut Point, the men on board the ship Terra Nova as she tries and fails to rescue the stranded Northern Party. This look at what is happening in other places at the same time is one of the real strengths of The Longest Winter, that cements together the many efforts of what is essentially on large field exploration spread out across a continent.

Hooper ties it all together in a final chapter, when the men of the Northern Party, after two years of disappointment and privation come finally home to the security and plenty of the hut at Cape Evans. In spare and elegant language she shows us how in almost indescribable ways they have grown through their ordeal. And we, the readers, in sharing this with them, have also grown. There are few books that can claim this remarkable achievement.

“The Longest Winter: Scott’s Other Heroes” by Meredith Hooper
Pubished by Counterpoint Press, Berkeley CA 2010
$26.00 at your local independent bookseller, or amazon.com

Review by David Hirzel, author of Sailor on Ice and Hold Fast

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