Thursday, November 16, 2017

Stephen R. Bown's "Island of the Blue Foxes"

Stephen R. Bown is a critically acclaimed author of several literary non-fiction books on the history of science, exploration and ideas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition, and reported the following:
On page 99:
The flotilla was soon engulfed in “thick” weather, and one of the ships became lost and returned while two continued on south, one commanded by Spangberg, the other by Lieutenant William Walton. They reached the island of Honshu in northern Japan in late June. Here they spied many small ships in the shallow bays. Coastal villages were surrounded by people working in fields of grain of a variety they did not recognize, while large forested hills dominated inland. On several occasions, boats sailed out to meet them, and men came aboard their ships to trade fresh fish, water, large tobacco leaves, rice, fruit, salted pickles, and other foods for Russian cloth and clothing. They were small men who bowed when entering the ship’s cabin and were “excessively polite.” Spangberg did not allow his men to go ashore, nor did he allow many Japanese to board his ship, “since Japan’s history abounds in accounts of attacks on Christians.” He observed that “in each Japanese craft was a number of stones, each of about two to three pounds weight. Perhaps the stones served as ballast, but being of that size, they could also have been used as projectiles, if things should have gone wrong.”
My latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition is about the mighty decade long Great Northern Expedition, conceived by Russia’s Peter the Great in the early 18th century. It was the most ambitious and well-financed scientific expedition in history, lasting nearly ten years and spanning three continents, its geographic, cartographic and natural history accomplishments are on par with James Cook’s famous voyages and Lewis and Clark’s cross-continental trek. The expedition involved thousands of scientists, artists, surveyors, naval officers, mariners, soldiers, and skilled laborers, all of whom had to cross through Siberia (which had no roads or accurate maps at the time), build a shipyard from scratch in Kamchatka, then build two ships, before setting off across the North Pacific to Alaska. It was a hugely important undertaking both politically and scientifically – Siberia was charted and a route across it formalized, while it laid the foundation for the Russian Empire to conquer Alaska (before selling it to the US over a century later). But it was also one of the Age of Sail’s darkest tales of shipwreck, suffering and survival. Page 99 does convey something of the content of the book – the adventurous events of a sea voyage – but it doesn’t get to the meat of the story, neither politically with Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, nor scientifically with the German naturalist and physician Georg Steller, nor nautically with the lurid and dramatic shipwreck, nor adventurously with the demoralized group’s survival on an uninhabited island. So this time I’d have to say sorry Ford Madox Ford, no dice, as they say.
Learn more about the book and author at Stephen R. Bown's website and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Viking.

The Page 99 Test: White Eskimo.

My Book, The Movie: Island of the Blue Foxes.

Writers Read: Stephen R. Bown.

--Marshal Zeringue