Disaster and Discovery: True Stories of Survival That Inspired Five Nonfiction Authors by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace

Imagine embarking for an unexplored world, relying on faulty maps based on guesswork and fake science. Your goal is a tropical oasis at the North Pole, inhabited by unknown species of animals and maybe a lost race of humans. It sounds like science fiction, but that was the prevailing belief in 1879 when the USS Jeannette steamed north.


What inspires explorers to risk their lives, to stare death in the face for scientific advancement or personal riches? And what inspires nonfiction authors to research those explorations and write about them? The answers may surprise you.


Digging into the journals of the Jeannette survivors compelled us to tell their stories in our new book, Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story. But it was more than the fact that their ship had been locked in ice for nearly two years as it drifted through the Arctic. Or the hundreds of harrowing miles they trekked through knee-deep slush after the ship finally sank. It was their will to survive. By the time they reached Siberia, they had little to eat but reindeer hooves and sealskin trousers. The worst was still ahead, but they never gave up.


Unsung Heroes

Carole Boston Weatherford found that same resilience in the hero of her picture book I, Matthew Henson. Henson and Robert Peary were the first to reach the North Pole–thirty years after the Jeannette expedition. (In fact, the trail of floating debris from the wreckage of the Jeannette helped later explorers find a pathway to the Pole.)


“Peary would lose several toes and Henson the sight in one eye before reaching their destination on their eighth try,” Carole told us. But for decades, Henson didn’t receive credit for the discovery. “I want young readers to know that the world was not explored solely by white men,” Carole said. “Explorers and navigators of color also contributed to mapping the world.”


A similar motivation drove Christine Taylor-Butler to delve into the lives of the Sherpa—the unsung heroes of Himalaya exploration—for her book Sacred Mountain: Everest. “Most people think of Sir Edmund Hillary as the first man on Everest,” Christine said. “But ignored is the fact that Tenzing Norgay saved Hillary’s life on the mountain and is the only reason he reached the top. I’m a fan of making sure the underdog gets the credit they are due even if history shunts them to the sidelines.”


Giving credit to diverse heroes became a significant part of our effort as well. We knew that the Jeannette added two crew members during a stop at the Native Village of St. Michael, Alaska. They’d been largely dismissed in earlier accounts of the expedition and incorrectly referred to as Inuit, Eskimo, or Indian. Our calls to village elders and to scholars at the University of Alaska and the Bureau of Indian Affairs revealed much new information about Alexey and Aneguin—skilled hunters and trappers who played major roles in the ultimate fate of the crew. We also learned that they were Yup’ik. They’re mentioned with admiration throughout the journals of the ship’s captain, doctor, and naturalist, and their courage is unquestioned.


Treasure in the Journals

One of the most incredible things about the Jeannette expedition is that those journals survived. The crew was cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted every second as they trudged toward Siberia. But they kept writing about it! Our book is based almost entirely on their first-hand accounts. Captain George W. De Long knew that his 40-pound logbooks held vital information about temperatures, wind speeds, ice thickness, and newly discovered islands in the Arctic. He would rather have starved than leave those records behind. De Long knew that he might not survive, but he wanted to make sure that his observations did.


David Meissner also benefited from a nineteenth-century journal in writing Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure, with co-author Kim Richardson. The book follows two young men who depart for the Northwest Territories in 1897. “My most surprising research discovery was finding out that one of the two protagonists had written a daily diary for the entire year—and that it was sitting in the special collections at Yale University!” Meissner said. “Until then I mostly had intermittent letters, with big gaps in the story I was trying to tell.”


Like Henson and the Jeannette crew, the Klondike protagonists “embarked on a true adventure—not sure what they’d encounter and no guarantee they’d come back alive,” Meissner said. “They were out in the elements in sub-zero temperatures, and they had to find ways to survive.”


Still Relevant

Captain De Long’s foresight has paid off. The Jeannette’s logbooks are helping climate scientists today. Citizen scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently transcribed De Long’s records of weather and ice depth. NOAA’s Kevin Wood told National Public Radio that the ice that trapped the Jeannette in September 1879 no longer occurs that early in the season. “What’s really important is what this tells us about the climate and its effects — from storms to ice floes — today.”


Young readers need to know how humans navigated life before us. As Carole Boston Weatherford told us, “I hope young readers will hear of Henson’s determination and feel that the future is theirs to discover.”

Bound by Ice is the ultimate true story of adventure and survival, and it also demonstrates the best of humanity. Once the quest for the North Pole turned into a race to survive, the crew chose to work together and to help each other live. They shared rations and carried each other when necessary. In the worst of conditions, they never lost their empathy or kindness. While they were willing to die to advance science, they did everything they could to help each other live. We find that remarkable.



Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace are the authors of the new barrier-breaking adventure book Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story (Calkins Creek), which has received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus. The investigative nonfiction authors’ most recent biography, Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights, is an ALA Notable book and a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. It earned a YALSA award nomination for Excellence in Nonfiction, was a Booklist Editors’ Choice, and was named one of Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year. Blood Brother won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award, ILA’s Social Justice Literature Award, and the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. Visit the authors on Twitter: @SandraNWallace and @RWallaceBooks and online at www.sandraneilwallace.com and richwallacebooks.com


Nerdy Book Club is just the first stop on the Bound by Ice Blog Tour. Check out the rest of their posts this week at the following stops:

Monday, 9/18   Mrs. Yingling Reads

Tuesday, 9/19   The Booklist Reader

Wednesday, 9/20 KidLit Frenzy

Thursday, 9/21 Dr. Bickmore’s YA Wednesday

Friday, 9/22  The Nonfiction Detectives