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MR Lost Classic The Karluk's Last Voyage by Robert A. Bartlett Cooper Square Press, 2001, 329 pp., $18.95 Like other polar explorers such as Amundsen and Peary, the ice captain Robert Bartlett has a particular kind of renown based almost as much on endurance as on actual accompUshment . The voyage for which he is best known was a disaster; Bartlett's ship, the Karluk, was first frozen and then crushed in a pack of ice on itsjourney ofexploration to the North Pole, leaving Bartlett and his men stranded in subzero temperatures with barely any chance of rescue. The disaster-at-sea story has become a fascinating subgenre of memoir, with records, accounts and narratives sometimes reading so unbeUevably as to seem a kind of historical fiction. Seaman Owen Chase's The Narrative ofthe Wreck ofthe WhaleShip Essex, which inspUed Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, was an early classic, as was the gruesome story of the Medusa and her "deathraft ." More recently, and more popularly , we have Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance writings, an odd, fascinating mix of courage and huckstering . But with less sensationaUsm and a story perhaps more accessible, Robert Bartlett wrote what may have been the twentieth century's finest account of a disaster at sea. The Karluk's Last Voyage originaUy appeared in 1916, shortly after Bartlett had returned to civilization following the Karluk disaster. The book soon went out of print, conceivably forgotten by all but the few who had read it or Uved through the events it recalled. But the book's reappearance now, in a handy paperback edition, is hardly surprising. Sea disaster stories have become big business again, owing to best-sellers such as Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, to the movies and to the cravings of people seeking more "reaUty" entertainment than their television sets can offer them. Reading Bartlett, at the least, is a pleasure. His prose is fine and feels timely. The grace of The Karluk's Last Voyage is its impeccably rendered progression from one event or mishap to another, while at the same time the narrative reveals the strength of the human wiU to survive. The Karluk is trapped in the ice, abandoned and eventually torn and twisted apart by the ice; Bartlett and his men set up a makeshift camp on the barren Wrangell Island, and when the weather breaks to a reasonable forty degrees below zero, Bartlett himseU , with a keen understanding of a captain's responsibUity, begins a remarkable journey with an Eskimo companion, traveling across 700 mues of frozen seas and Siberian wUderness to find help for a rescue. Incredibly , despite a few casualties, Bartlett succeeds. He doesn't boast of bravery , either his own or his men's, as if such courage were merely a matter of duty. Describing a crew member's ordeal with amputation owing to frostbite, Bartlett writes that the only instruments at hand were "a pocket krrife and a pair of tin shears." But he adds, "The patient did his part with rare grit, so that the result was a success ." As is this memorable narrative. —CoUn Heming 212 · The Missouri Review ...


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