In Labyrinth of Ice, Buddy Levy writes about the Greely (1881-1884) Arctic expedition that starts with so much promise, but in the end goes horribly wrong. Commander Greely and his band of mostly military men set out to travel to the “farthest north,”, and while they do make it, the return brings about much peril.
In modern times, it is hard to imagine being so disconnected from civilization that one has to depend on only those around him, but this was of course the case during the Greely expedition. In fact, the only way they could transmit messages between themselves and those that might try to rescue them was by leaving them in cans whenever one of the ships managed to reach a location where it might be retrieved. From there, they had to hope.
The book strikes a very hopeful, excited tone for most of its first half. The men, and they were all men on this trip, enjoy forays into icy waters, play games and celebrate holidays at a fort they have constructed near the coast of Greenland. They have plenty of food and resources to go around, and make judicious use of them. Some wrinkles do appear while they are at base though, most notably rebellions among the leadership.
The real trouble starts once they decide to set off from the fort in the hopes of locating a relief vessel that will sail them back south. Food and tempers are shortened, and, well lives are lost. As in most true disaster stories, the reader gets a sense of the men’s deep despair, and wonders when or if they will be saved.
As the exhibition rolls along, we particularly see a change in Greely’s leadership from a more authoritarian style to one that is more democratic, which has a big positive effect on morale. There are also changes in other characters, for instance an initially discharged lieutenant who shows such great leadership skills in the end, and missed the last ship out when he was to have been sent home, that he is reinstated. In the character portrayals, we experience how many of us might have reacted under such harsh conditions, even as we ponder the wisdom of having placed oneself there.
This is a usual American exploration story, in that it celebrates what some might see as White men’s exploitation of the land and absorption of the locals. The Greenlanders who participate are given what might nowadays be considered offensive nicknames such as “Eskimo Fred,” but in the end they are treated fairly well and become an important part of the overall story. Some of the feelings of exploitation no doubt also arise from the fact that many of these men were of military origin, and relied heavily on their ranks and their desire to establish pride in the USA.
On the whole, Labyrinth is an enthralling story with which the reader, if consuming during this time of Covid, can strongly identify. It actually helps one to ponder how to cope with extreme isolation and the sadness that can result from being out of contact with family and friends for an extended period. Probably the rushed ending, wherein Greely’s other accomplishments are laid out, could have been excluded. But give it a go anyway, and you might come away with a little more appreciation of life’s fragility and why it must be protected.