Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Survival At The Bottom

When you step into a wild place, a place where the sights and sounds of civilization are gone, for the briefest of moments it's easy to understand how the first person to see this particular spot might have felt.  Looking at the landscape about you, it's with a sense of awe and wonder.  For some this search to go where none have been before was (is) a lifelong quest.

Sir Ernest Shackleton made several trips to Antarctica but the one for which he is most remembered is the one taken on the ship Endurance.  I first became acquainted with a more detailed, vivid accounting of this expedition when I read Jennifer Armstrong's Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance.  I was even more intrigued after I read the fictional title, Shackleton's Stowaway, by Victoria McKernan.  Author illustrator William Grill now documents this voyage in Shackleton's Journey (Flying Eye Books) giving it his unique illustrative perspective.

Born on 15 February 1874, Shackleton was the second of ten children. 

With this single sentence the book and our relationship with this historic adventure begins.  In the subsequent thirty-two chapters we are drawn deeper and deeper into the lives of Shackleton and his crew.  Intriguing, insider-like details hold our interest.

Originally five thousand...yes...five thousand men applied to become members of Shackleton's crew aboard the Endurance.  You would be surprised to know the kind of questions asked about their abilities.  Twenty-six were chosen.  Later a stowaway, Percy Blackborrow, joined the group.  In addition to the men, sixty-nine dogs were essential to the goals (and outcome) of this venture.  Crew members were paired with at least one of these canine colleagues.

The construction of Endurance, the tools necessary to maintain her, and the equipment and supplies needed for the men and dogs are discussed in readiness for the launch day of August 8, 1914.  Sailing from England to South Georgia to the Weddell Sea the progress of the Endurance began to slow due to encounters with pack ice.  After seven hundred hard-earned miles the ice won; the ship was stuck.

Shackleton continually kept his crew busy altering plans to meet the conditions they all faced abroad the ship and on the ice floe as the winter months slowly passed.  Spring brought even more danger as the ice pressed against their vessel.  Again the forces of nature were the victor; the Endurance was crushed on October 27, 1914.

Over the course of the next six months men and dogs would create and live in two separate camps, Ocean Camp and Patience Camp. Their moves were dictated by safety on the ice until they were left with having to sail for land, Elephant Island, in three life boats.  Landfall on this island did not end the danger to their lives.  Help was more than eight hundred miles away.

A treacherous sea voyage, continued survival on an uninhabitable island and a crossing over mountains thought to be impossible, were three major feats to be met and accomplished.  More than two years after they set sail from England, the crew was once again reunited on August 30, 1916.  Rarely are the elements so bravely survived.  Perhaps the Shackleton family motto,

By Endurance We Conquer  

is what kept all these men alive.

By confining each chapter to two pages of text and pictures, William Grill establishes a tension; not uncomfortable but one propelling the reader forward.  He has a gift in selecting those precise pieces of information important to the story.  Lending authenticity to the recounting are direct quotes from Shackleton and crew members interspersed in the narrative.  Here is a single example.

Endurance creaked and groaned as the strain increased, and loud cracks and deafening sounds were heard as the ice slowly crushed the cross-bracing of the ship.
Frank Worsley wrote, "The behavior of our ship in the ice has been magnificent...It will be sad if such a brave little craft should be finally crushed in the remorseless, slowly strangling grip of the Weddell pack, after ten months of the bravest and most gallant fight ever put up by a ship."

The stark white book case emblazoned with the intricate design done in blue and black is a reflection of the starkness of the world in which Shackleton and his crew entered.  The design with Shackleton in its center surrounded by the three life boats, whales, birds, crew members and the dogs is stunning.  On the expedition map the representation for dense pack becomes the pattern for the opening and closing endpapers.

Rendered in colored pencils William Grill's illustrations are astonishing in their finer points; the tiniest of details encouraging readers to pause and glance between the text and visuals.  For Grill it's not enough to tell us...

Each piece of timber had been selected carefully from a single oak tree, so that it would fit the design and curvature of the ship.

...but he illustrates the cutting of the wood and how the individual sections are formed.  The texture and shading on his larger illustrations (and on some of the smaller ones, also), the Endurance leaving port, the Expedition Map, the Endurance breaking up, the voyage to Elephant Island, the blizzard, the James Caird sailing for help, crossing the mountains, the stay on Elephant Island, the rescue and the crew together at last, are marvelous.

I have many favorite illustrations in this title.  One which will make any reader gasp is titled Isolation.  A single phrase sits among a vast area of ice and snow with the tiny Endurance pictured above it.  The small visuals around the text for the chapter, A Change Of Plans, show the men and dogs adapting to conditions in twenty-two separate elements.

Incredible artwork enhancing the compelling text makes this book, Shackleton's Journey, written and illustrated by William Grill one of the finest nonfiction titles of 2014.  I keep opening it up to reread it in its entirety or to enjoy certain pages over and over.  New items are discovered each time.  Words appearing in bold text are gathered at the back of the book in a glossary.

For more information about William Grill and to see multiple pages from the title, visit his website and Tumblr page by following the links embedded in his names.  There is also a short animation of his illustrations at his website.  This link takes you to the publisher's website where Grill answers a few questions.  Here is a link to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast showcasing more art from the book.

Each week I am honored to participate in Alyson Beecher's 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge by linking with other bloggers at Kid Lit Frenzy.


  1. Sometimes I think your beautiful reviews are more poetic than the books themselves!! I'm off to reserve this one at the library!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Michele. Wait until you feel the weight and style of the paper used. This book is a work of art.

  2. This looks like such an interesting book! I love that dogs were a part of the expedition, too.

    1. It is completely interesting, Holly. I wonder if the men would have survived emotionally and physically without the dogs. Let me know what you think when you read it.

  3. I've read more than one book about Shackleton and his voyage and survival, but now your lovely review makes it important that I read this one, too. Thank you! And thanks for the links, too!

    1. It's a fascinating story. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I do. And you are most welcome, Linda.

  4. I have a small obsession with Shackleton (and polar expeditions), and you have convinced me that I need to order this book right this moment. What a beautiful review!

    1. Believe me when I say I understand your "small obsession". I know you will enjoy this book. Thank you for your comments, Elisabeth.

  5. I am loving this book. My children and I are looking forward to reading more of it. I love just flipping through the pages and looking at these gorgeous illustrations.

    1. So glad to read this Carrie. The illustrations are unlike anything I've ever seen.