7 July 2015

Book Review ~ The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, by Stephen R. Bown

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

"Amundsen! The very name carries the song of the Arctic winds, the mystery of the white places of the earth. Of all men, he alone had stood at both frozen tips of our spinning world."

Boyden Sparkes, December 1928. 

I remember as a schoolboy being led to believe that Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition was 'cheated' of their moment of glory at the South Pole by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. I urge you to read this book to set the record straight.

Canadian biographer Steven R. Bown shows us a flawed hero, worshipped by his men yet a womaniser, careless with his money, who lived his life to the full. The fascinating accounts of Amundsen’s adventures are balanced with details of the considerable effort and planning behind each of his voyages.

Early on, Amundsen realised that there was inevitably tension between the ship's captain and the expedition leader, so he promptly gained his captain's papers to solve the problem. For similar reasons he never included doctors on his teams, a policy that almost cost him his life. In the Arctic he was attacked by a polar bear, which smashed his shoulder and ripped great gashes on his back. He had the ship’s cook stitch him up as best he could but suffered from his injuries for many years.

Amundsen's fascination with the Inuit culture is a perfect example of his attitude to exploration. As well as learning how to survive in the ice, how to manage sled dogs and the secrets of their reindeer-hide clothing, he studied their whole approach to life. This proved invaluable when he reached the Antarctic. While Scott struggled with unreliable snow-tractors, 'man-hauling' sledges and ponies, Amundsen's small team travelled light from one 'storage depot' to the next, with teams of dogs ideally suited to the conditions.

Although he never met Scott, Amundsen’s party were visited by the Terra Nova shortly before they left for the pole. Almost obsessive about keeping his own ship, the Fran clean and well-ordered, Amundsen was appalled by the condition of Scott’s ship and thought it did not reflect well on the leadership of the British expedition.

Captain Roald Amundsen at the wheel
during the North Pole expedition, 1920
(Wikimedia Commons)
The global interest in his adventures meant he could earn a fortune from his books and lecture tours, which he used to finance new expeditions. Less easy for modern readers to understand is the way he took two young Chukchi Eskimo girls to America, and then to Norway, apparently to prove they were capable of gaining a 'proper' education.

I knew little of Amundsen’s achievements in discovering the North-West passage, or of his high-risk attempts to fly to the North Pole in various aircraft. His ultimately successful voyage in an Italian airship is one of the most gripping accounts in the book.

Thanks to Stephen Bown, Roald Amundsen is now one of my all-time heroes. I would like to leave the last word to another, Earnest Shackleton, who responded to Amundsen's speech to the Royal Geographic Society, saying, "throughout the lecture tonight I never heard the word 'I' mentioned, it was always 'we'. I think that is the way Amundsen got his men to work along with him, and it brought the successful conclusion."

Tony Riches
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About the Author

Stephen R. Bown is an award-winning author of historical non-fiction with eight books published internationally and translated into many languages. His book Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail was an international critical success and was selected as one of the Globe and Mail's Top 100 books of 2004. Stephen lives in Canmore in the Rocky Mountains with his wife Nicky and two children. When not writing he enjoys reading, mountain biking, hiking and camping in the summer, and downhill and cross country skiing in the winter. Find out more at his website www.stephenrbown.net  and find him on Facebook

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