Ada Blackjack
Jennifer Niven
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Buy *Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic* online

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic
Jennifer Niven
431 pages
November 2003
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Every once in awhile, a book comes along that takes my breath away, one for which I put off walking the dog, grading my students' papers, even, sometimes, eating. Ada Blackjack is such a book. Not only is it about a heroic Inuit woman that we should all know, but Jennifer Niven's second book is a gem of narrative and descriptive powers. The book is thrilling and chilling, especially since it takes place primarily on Wrangel Island, north of Siberia.

Blackjack (1893? - 1983) was a young Eskimo from Alaska, the only female in a 1921 five-person expedition to Wrangel Island. With four young men from the U.S. and Canada, she lived under unbelievably difficult, freezing conditions for approximately two years. The team also had a team of sled dogs, many of whom perished, and a resident cat.

A divorced mother who hired on as the team's seamstress and cook, Blackjack went somewhat unwillingly. But, as she had a sick son whom she couldn't afford to care for, and had been promised a large sum of money to accompany the expedition, she felt compelled to go. Although a shaman told her to go, she also warned Blackjack of "only death and danger" on the expedition. That Blackjack found, in miles of ice; sixty-one days of total darkness between November and January; towering polar bears (of which she was particularly scared); and the ravaging disease of scurvy from which one of her party, Lorne Knight, died a slow and gruesome death. Ultimately, Ada Blackjack was the only human survivor of the expedition.

Although when Ada first set foot on Wrangel Island she did not know how to do the more "manly" chores such as making skin boats, chopping wood or killing animals, she taught herself how to do all these things out of necessity -- and became increasingly proud of herself. She was left on her own for the last several months. Like Knight, she developed a touch of scurvy but was able to remain relatively strong until a Russian ship finally came to rescue her (and the only other survivor, the cat, Vic). They took her back home to Nome, her tubercular son and a comparatively warm and comfortable life.

The team of five lived in extremely close quarters, in tents and icehouses. Early on, Ada fantasized about marrying one of the men, but this quickly passed. The relationships between them were amicable if sometimes strained. There was nothing for them to do except survive. The books they brought they read several times over. There was no electricity, no entertainment, the food was often sparse and not nutritious, and the possibility of getting anywhere on the island was extremely limited and dangerous. The dogs, like the adventurers, became weak and tired. They were all often undernourished, and the men had constant aches and pains from dealing with the harsh climate.

The second half of the book centers on Blackjack's mundane and poverty-stricken life back in "civilization" and the intricate politics behind the two Wrangel expeditions. Three of the young men's bodies from Ada's expedition were never found. While interesting in the context of the entire story, this second half pales in comparison with the harrowing day-to-day lives of the five adventurers on Wrangel Island.

After Ada returned to Alaska, she remarried twice, had one more son and once traveled as far south as Los Angeles. But her life was never this exciting again (not that she wanted it to be) and was never as comfortable as one might wish for such a heroine. She died in relative obscurity.

Niven writes,

"In September 1923, a diminutive twenty-five-year-old Eskimo woman named Ada Blackjack emerged as the heroic survivor of an ambitious polar expedition. In the annals of Arctic exploration, many men have been hailed as heroes, but a hero like Ada was unheard of at the time.After Ada's triumphant return to civilization, the international press called her the female Robinson Crusoe."
Finally, one month after Blackjack died, the Alaska Legislature recognized her as a "true and courageous hero, 'a small token of remembrance for a woman whose bravery and heroic deeds have gone unnoticed for so many years.'"

This is the first book about Blackjack although not the first book about this expedition. Others exist, including two related volumes by explorer and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the man who organized the expedition and an earlier one to Wrangel - The Adventure of Wrangel Island (1925) and The Friendly Arctic (1921). Although he had spent years in the Arctic, Stefansson had never set foot on Wrangel but wanted his crew to claim the uninhabitable island for the British, to expand his bloated reputation, and to re-prove his thesis of "the friendly Arctic."

Niven wrote this book based on diaries, letters, journals, and other manuscripts written by the five adventurers. Many of these documents now reside in college libraries. She was also able to study the personal papers of Stefansson and to interview relatives of the brave young explorers, including Ada's son, Billy Blackjack Johnson.

Although the author does not live in the Arctic, this is Niven's second nonfiction book about the area. Obviously, like many of us, she is fascinated with such an extreme and exotic climate. Her first book, The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk (published in 2001), was called one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and was included in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. That book became the subject of full-length documentaries on Dateline NBC and on the Discovery Channel. Ada Blackjack would also make an appropriate documentary or feature film although it might be physically painful to watch (especially Knight's wasting away from scurvy) -- best, perhaps, saved for the heat and sun of summer.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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