Saturday, December 3, 2016

David Welky's "A Wretched and Precarious Situation"

David Welky is the author of The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937, The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, and other books. He is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas.

Welky applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, and reported the following:
The early twentieth-century Crocker Land expedition is an oddity. Incredibly famous at the time, it has since been forgotten by all but a few specialists in Arctic history or in the history of exploration. That’s a shame, because it’s a great, twisty story with an incredible cast of characters.

The expedition revolved around the search for Crocker Land, a previously unknown continent that explorer Robert E. Peary spotted in the polar sea in 1906. Two of his disciples, George Borup and Donald MacMillan, organized a mission to determine the extent of Crocker Land. Becoming the first men to tread on a new continent – the last continent – would no doubt bring them eternal fame and glory. “It would be a fine thing for America if the discovery of Crocker Land could be placed to our credit as a nation,” Theodore Roosevelt said.

As is usually the case with such stories, nothing about the Crocker Land expedition worked out exactly as anticipated. A bid to solve “the last great geographical problem” devolved into a nightmare of shipwrecks, backstabbing, treachery, and even murder. These setbacks, along with the party’s long fight to survive in one of the world’s harshest environments, help drive A Wretched and Precarious Situation.

As luck would have it, page 99 of A Wretched and Precarious Situation catches the narrative at a pivotal moment. It is 9:00 a.m. on November 11, 1912. The party has not yet gone north. Donald MacMillan enters New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, which is sponsoring the expedition, to meet two new members of the team. Museum curator E. O. Hovey introduces geologist Elmer Ekblaw and Navy ensign Fitzhugh Green to both MacMillan and the reader.

There’s a lot happening on this page, and careful readers should sense some foreshadowing. Hovey has made an impulsive, imperious move by hiring two men with no Arctic experience without first consulting MacMillan, the supposed leader of the expedition. MacMillan himself struggles to appraise these new teammates, performing a poor imitation of his mentor Peary, who had a gift for capturing a person’s essence with a single glance. Ekblaw is stolid yet uninspiring. He hardly resembles the classic explorer-hero, indicating that he might face difficulties once the party heads north. Green, on the other hand, is handsome and witty, intelligent and inquisitive. Surely nothing could go wrong with this fine specimen, MacMillan concludes.

Sometimes first impressions can be misleading. As it turns out, none of these men are exactly as they seem, and all of them are in for some rough times. To find out more, read page 100 and beyond!
The Page 99 Test: The Thousand-Year Flood.

My Book, The Movie: A Wretched and Precarious Situation.

Writers Read: David Welky.

--Marshal Zeringue