Review: The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Cover of The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Author: Jennifer Niven
Title: The Ice Master
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2000
Publisher: Hachette Books
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Creative/narrative non-fiction
Why I Read: Interested in the Karluk‘s journey
Rating: ★★★★
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My introduction to the Karluk voyage came via Eric Walter’s Trapped in Ice. Walter’s book is one of the earliest chapter books I remember reading, perhaps in grade three. Earlier this year, I read Captain Bartlett’s official journals of the event in The Karluk’s Last Voyage. Both of these books indulge in some sugar coating and neither of them explore what happened to those left on the ice after Bartlett departed. The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven (author of All the Bright Places) fills in those gaps, offering a detailed account of how the Karluk‘s final voyage went so wrong. The fate of the Karluk provides an excellent exploration of how one terrible choice after another can lead to disastrous outcomes.

I enjoyed how Niven constructed the narrative. She attempts to allow “the people of the Karluk […] to speak on these pages in their own distinctive and passionate voices” (ix). This results in a tale that is less a factual account and more an adventure novel, though it still has that non-fiction vibe to it. She describes small yet poignant moments, such as when Mamen’s pocket watch suddenly starts working again during a dull day (78). However, Niven’s narrative makes it almost too easy to root for the good guys and boo at the bad guys. It’s harder to keep in mind that these were real people Niven didn’t know. The personalities of and interactions between the men may have been more complex than Niven portrays. Still, I enjoyed rallying behind Mamen and nodding in agreement with his judgment of certain characters.

The time the men spent on the island was a lot darker than I imagined. (The other two accounts I read of the Karluk were poor influences on my expectations.) Some nasty characters inhabited the Karluk, even if they weren’t in actuality as awful as Niven portrays them. I can’t help but wonder if any of it was inspiration for The North Water. Of course, that book is on a whole nother level; it’s a bit of a stretch to link the two…but I can see how one might get some seedlings of ideas from the Karluk’s situation.

The ice was misleading. It was easy to feel safe when the ice was still and settled and the men were tucked safely inside the ship. Their frozen home gave them a false sense of security. The scenery, too, was unspeakably beautiful, and it was hard to believe that something so lovely could at the same time be so deadly. The sky was bright as a mirror at times, and there was only ice and snow “and a few openings and small water channels that shine and glitter” as far as the eye could see, observed Mamen. (64)

Niven’s prose itself isn’t exceptional, but it doesn’t need to be. The subject matter impresses on its own. A handful of moments (I would have appreciated more of them) made me pause as I imagined what it would have been like to truly experience the Arctic ice, snow, and darkness.

There were two degrees of frost on McKinlay’s bunk, and everything that was freezable in the Cabin DeLuxe was frozen and frozen hard. When the men awakened, the room looked like a glittering ice palace. It covered everything, and long, jagged icicles shone from the ceiling. (87)

The Bottom Line:

A well-researched and well-written (and at times emotional) account of a lesser-known disastrous Arctic journey.

Further Reading:

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