Endurance by Alfred Lansing

True heroism…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first. Shackleton’s expedition was at least in part to wipe out Britain’s humiliation at being beaten to the South Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen.

If by any chance you don’t know whether Shackleton and his men survived, I urge you not to look it up before reading this one. I was extremely vague on the whole thing and as a result found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The crew as the voyage begins

Having set the scene for the expedition, Lansing introduces us to Shackleton the man – rather self-aggrandizing, hoping to enrich himself, but also a great leader, loyal to his men and capable of inspiring great loyalty from them – and from the reader. I didn’t totally like him, but if I’m ever trapped in a life or death situation, I hope Shackleton is my leader. Gradually, Lansing then brings each of the men to life, using extracts from journals and other records to show us how they worked together as a team, and played together to keep their spirits up and fend off boredom even when in extreme situations. We are made privy to their jokes, their foibles, their little rivalries, and most of all to their truly heroic will to survive. When you read old adventure stories, like Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, sometimes the heroes can seem too good to be true. But the men of the Endurance are real, and they are as great as any fictional heroes – the stronger looking out for the weaker, no disloyalty, no factions emerging, no blame being cast around when things go wrong. Working together, finding ways to overcome every hurdle, never giving up hope… oh no! I’m going to start sobbing again any minute now…

Trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Anyway! It all goes wrong early on, when the Endurance becomes trapped in the ice. There’s nothing the crew can do except wait, and hope that the ice drifts in the direction they want to go, or breaks up enough to allow them to get back to open water. But the great pressure of the ice on the hull eventually proves too much for the brave ship, and the men find themselves out on the ice with only what they could salvage before she went to her doom. From there on, it’s a battle between man and nature, with nature holding all the cards. Having said don’t look it up, I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens, but there are moments of drama, tragedy, hope, despair and even occasionally laughter.

Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton with the crushed Endurance

Lansing presents all this in a rather understated way. The book is full of facts – like the compass position of the men each time they are able to take a measurement, or exactly what food rations they were allowed each day. He doesn’t give a running commentary on either people or events – he simply presents them to the reader, often using the crew members’ own words as recorded contemporaneously in their journals. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. And he makes us hear each crack of the ice, each groan of the ship’s timbers. We feel the bitter cold and the perpetually soaked clothing and bedding. And we are shown the men’s hunger so vividly that we too begin to see each passing seal as food…

Making camp on an ice floe…

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. The crew were a diverse group, with Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, etc., alongside the Englishmen who made up the majority, and Prebble gives each a distinctive voice and personality, complete with appropriate accent. This added to the feeling of getting to know them as real living individuals rather than simply as historical characters on the page.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best – I can’t recommend this one highly enough! I was a sobbing, traumatised wreck by the end – but was the ending tragedy or triumph? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read it to find out… or better still, listen to the audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

58 thoughts on “Endurance by Alfred Lansing

    • Yes, one of the drawbacks of audio is no illustrations, so I had no idea about the photos till I did an image search when I was drafting the review. They’re remarkably good quality, and fascinating. I was stunned by how small that ice floe they camped on was…

  1. It sounds like a really powerful read, FictionFan, and I don’t say that easily. Sometimes those great historical adventures are best told in that way – by showing the humans involved in them. And the ‘human against nature’ theme, I’m sure, adds a lot to this. It’s hard to imagine how much courage and willingness to endure that it must have taken to be an explorer at that time…

    • This one seems to be a true classic of this type of factual adventure, and deservedly so. I couldn’t help wondering if our pampered generation still produces people with this type of physical courage. It wasn’t just what they did – it was the remarkable good humour and brilliant teamwork that impressed me. Not one person threatened to sue anyone or mentioned “health and safety”… 😉

  2. Gosh, I just don’t think I have it in me to read this… although it sounds like a truly fabulous and accomplished work. I am a gentle creature by nature and, knowing the outcome of this expedition, I feel my delicate nerves may be a little frayed…
    I have been enjoying the excerpts you have shared over the previous weeks and looked forward to this review very much. You have done a fine job, my friend, this is a wonderful write up and certainly captures the sense of adventure of the book 🙂

    • It’s a great book, Kay, and I think listening to it is probably even better than reading it – it somehow makes all the crewmen come to life. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  3. This one sounds most interesting (and I must confess I don’t recall the outcome either). But, like Lucy, I’m not sure I could read or listen to it. I found myself gulping air during both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as Titanic, and I’m afraid I might freeze (or starve!) to death during this one. Still, what an outstanding review, FF!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I had to restrain myself from googling to find out what happened to them all, but it was worth it so I could be in suspense. Haha – it made me stop complaining about our miserable weather for a bit, that’s for sure! And be thankful for a warm, dry bed at the end of the day… 😀

  4. That does indeed sound like a drum-beating, heart pounding narrative. Perfect for audio. The pictures are fascinating. Excellent review–thanks so much! btw, I saved the pic of the Endurance to put on my tall ships board on Pinterest.

    • Thank you! It really is one that I think works superbly as an audiobook, probably better than reading it. The narrator is so good and gets the tone just right. The pictures are fabulous, aren’t they? I love that one of the Endurance at night – so atmospheric. It’s like a ghost ship…

  5. I do hope you are now fully recovered from this traumatic read – it does sound like it was a wonderful roller coaster of a read and I do hope you are never in need of a Shackleton 😉 A brilliant review and reading it I can definitely see the appeal which perhaps wasn’t as apparent when you first mentioned this book.

    • Haha – I am, thank you, but it took a while! Can’t remember when I last got so tense over a book! Fortunately, I’m not anticipating walking across the South Pole in the near future… 😉

  6. I just watched some trailer of some sort for a movie made about in 2002. This does sound like a fascinating read, I was looking forward to your review of this. Agreed that it helps when you don’t actually know the ending (even if it’s a true story!).

  7. Going to be careful here – no spoilers.
    We have lots of Antarctic expedition memorabilia in the museum here, and last year we had an incredible exhibition of drawings and paintings of the region. I. and I went three times and it scored 10/10 on our “pictures I would steal” -ometer!
    Great review of a book I will certainly be reading.

    • I must say I have no desire to walk across the South Pole but the book did make me wish I could see Antarctica somehow without getting cold or wet! I’d have liked to have seen that exhibition – it’s such a dramatic landscape. You’ll love this book, I think… 🙂

  8. This sounds so good! Every once in a while I get in the mood for an adventure nonfiction read. I’m going to have to keep this in mind. I hope you gave yourself an extra piece of chocolate or two after the roller-coaster of emotions!

    • Me too, and this is definitely the best one I’ve read. Mind you, it’s been in print for over 50 years so obviously I’m not the only person who thinks it’s great! I think the GR rating is something like 4.5 with tens of thousands of ratings. Haha – the odd thing is I felt so sorry for the men on their measly rations that I felt guilty every time I ate something… it works quite well as a diet book too… 😉

  9. Ahoy there matey! It was great to read this review as me momma just got back from Antarctica and this was the book she read when she was there. If fact she gave me her copy to read. I just saw all the photographs she took. They were at one point fleeing a hurricane and had 60 foot swells. No photos of that. Just lots of super cute penguins. This review makes me even more excited to read the novel. Arrrr!
    x The Captain

    • Oh, what a great choice to read while she was actually there! Though terrifying too, I’d think – I’d be checking every minute that my ship wasn’t going to get stuck in the ice. I’m glad she wasn’t hungry enough to see every penguin as a potential dinner… 😉 I hope you enjoy it – I really think you will. 😀

  10. Books like this make me realize how much of a wimp I am. There is NO way I would make this trip. But I don’t mind reading about them in the comfort of my own home.

    Great review! I can feel the tension of the men.

  11. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time. After reading your review, I feel almost desperate for it! I have read two similar nonfiction books that have made me feel this way while reading – completely on edge for the “characters”, even though I knew their stories pretty well already. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ by Nathaniel Philbrick is one of them. And ‘Above All Things’ by Tanis Rideout, which I read just before starting my blog, and is about George Mallory’s attempt to become the first person to the top of Mt. Everest. I remember feeling sick at times and having to put the book down.

    • Oh, I must look out for those two – thanks for the recs! I love going on a vicarious adventure every now and then – the heroism of these people restores my faith in humanity. I think you’ll love this one then – it’s incredibly highly rated on Goodreads so I’m not alone in thinking it’s an absolutely brilliant example of this kind of book…

  12. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have much of a surprise with this because we teach it to the Year 6 children as part of their Frozen Kingdom topic. Sounds like a wonderfully dramatic telling though. 🙂

    • Lucky kids! I should have known how it ended but sometimes having a lousy memory is a good thing! I reckon it’d still be just as enjoyable though – loads of the 5-star reviews are from people who clearly knew how it turned out. Fab book!

  13. At first, I couldn’t figure why you would include such a long quote — it’s not your style — but then I got to the end of it and understood. I’m glad you mentioned your audio book experience. The drive to my prison teaching job is one hour each way, so I’ve been getting audio books, especially ones by male authors, that I don’t end up reviewing and thus don’t feel as bad if I lose track of any running criticisms in my head. I’m going to see if my library has this book. I’ve been listening to Just Mercy and am starting to think it’s too much to drive to prison and listen to a book about prison, be in prison, and then drive away from a prison listening to a book about prison.

  14. This sounds wonderful, and completely devastating. Having read Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys not that long ago about Scott, I’d be really interested to read this as a factual account of a polar expedition.

    • Oh, yes, I’d forgotten that was what The Birthday Boys was about – I must shove it up my list (somehow). This one is fab – a real classic that has zillions of five-star reviews on Goodreads. Hope you enjoy it, if you manage to fit it in! 🙂

  15. Excellent review! I’m mad to know how it all turned out but will heed your advice and not look it up until after I’ve read the book. Not up to feeling harrowed at the moment though, so will put this book off for a while.

    • It definitely added to the tension not being sure what happened – my fingernails were bitten up to the elbows by the end! I’ve noticed you were missing – hope all’s well…

      • My lovely Dad died. He had been sick for a long time so even though I am sad, I am glad he is no longer suffering.
        I’m reading a little but haven’t felt like reviewing. I usually write reviews early in the morning, then tidy them up and schedule them on the weekends. Maybe next week…

  16. Oh my! I’m sitting here with the snow falling heavily outside – yes, it has FINALLY reached us, hurrah! 😀 Wouldn’t this be just the perfect thing to be reading right now! I do know how it pans out; I do remember the film, and having read your review I am desperate to read this. After I’ve had a lie down that is. Just the review has caused palpitations….

    • Hahaha – yes, it’s the perfect weather for this book. If it goes on for long, I shall have to go out and hunt for penguins! I reckon it would still be a great read even if you know what happens, but not knowing really gave me that extra level of tension. I was so worried for them at the end – I kept trying to remind myself it was a hundred years ago, but it didn’t seem to help…

  17. My husband has read this one. Brutal. I can’t imagine the drive that it takes to do something as physically and mentally difficult as this, willingly. The quote you pulled is a fabulous example of how an author shows the importance of an object as a way of justifying high emotions and then follows with actions that hold great meaning without having to explain how they hold great meaning. A wonderful piece of writing.

    • Isn’t it great? I love when a writer realises the story sometimes speaks for itself and doesn’t need embellishment. I still can’t read that quote without tears coming to my eyes – they’d been through so much by then, and the milk was so important…

  18. This book is phenomenal!! I ordered it after you named it best of the year and finished it this morning (around 4am). 😀 It’s such a compelling story and Lansing frames and paces it perfectly. Thank you for the recommendation!

    • Oh, I’m so glad you loved it! It’s great, isn’t it? My heart was in my mouth for most of it because I genuinely couldn’t remember whether they survived or not. It’s one I will re-read for sure. And thanks for letting me now – it’s always fantastic to learn when a recommendation has worked for someone! 😀

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