ARC Review: Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk


Empire of Ice and Stone by Buddy Levy

Buddy Levy delivers a well-crafted true story that reads like an action adventure novel. This meticulously researched book follows Captain Bob Bartlett and the scientists and crew of the Karluk, part of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, under the leadership of the entrepreneurial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As with many early Arctic adventures, things did not go to plan.

The Expedition set off, in part, to explore the Arctic waters north of Canada in search of potential new lands between the mainland and the north pole. As envisioned by Stefansson, the Expedition would split into two parts. The Karluk would support the Northern Party exploring the seas and ice. Other ships would support a Southern Party that would mostly do anthropological and geological research among the northern islands of Canada’s Coronation Gulf (off the northern coast of today’s Nunavit).

Six weeks after launching from Victoria, with Stefansson aboard, the Karluk was caught in converging ice floes and beset. Trapped in the ice and unable to steer or maneuver on her own, she was subject to the movement of the ice floes. 

At that point Stefansson decided, despite protest, that he should take a small group of men (including two of the best hunters, and the cameramen meant to record the Northern Party), and twelve of the best sled dogs on board, and set off. He headed landward, purportedly to hunt caribou to provide meat for the beset ship. The very next day a storm came up and pushed the ice surrounding the Karluk out to sea, putting an ever widening gap between the ship and Stefansson. This was not an altogether unexpected result. By leaving when he did, Stefansson essentially abandoned the ship to its fate.

From that point the author tells the story of the heroism of Bartlett, the peril of those aboard the Karluk, and the cavalier carelessness of Stefansson. It is an extraordinary story.

Bartlett kept the people aboard the ship alive (all men except for one Inuit woman and her two children) and delivered all he could to landfall on Wrangel Island. He and Kataktovik (an Inuit hired to the crew as a hunter) then ventured back on to the ice to cross the sea in an attempt to communicate their peril to the world and find rescue.

Stefansson on the other hand, reasoned that the lost ship and all aboard were already dead, or if not then beyond rescue. Once on land he reunited with the Southern Party and chartered a new boat and crew to reconstitute his Northern Party. He made no attempt to determine the fate of the Karluk, and did nothing to initiate a search or rescue operation.

Levy has done his research,  and that includes scouring the diaries and written accounts of many of the Karluk survivors. Reading this book you really feel as if you are right there alongside them as they adapt to conditions in order to survive - at first on the Arctic ice, and later on Wrangel Island. Some did not make it, and the fate of at least one crewman is still a subject of controversy to this day.

This is a fascinating account offering a clear contrast between the heroism of the Captain and the selfish carelessness of the Expedition Leader. Even those who are not typically nonfiction fans will find a lot to like about this book. 

RATING: I’ve read a diverse set of nonfiction books this year, and this one is near the top of my favorites. Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advanced copy of this book from St Martin’s Press and NetGalley, and am voluntarily providing this review. The book goes on sale December 6, 2022.

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Title: Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk

Author: Buddy Levy

Publisher: St Martin’s Press (MacMillan)

Publish Date: December 6, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781250274458

Publisher’s List Price: $29.99 Hardcover (as of 11/2022)