St. Martin’s Press: 2022
A doomed polar voyage pulls modern readers to the early twentieth century in Buddy Levy’s second historical adventure narrative set in the Arctic. Like the nonfiction writer’s 2019 award-winning Labyrinth of Ice, this one, too, is a page-turner.
The saga starts in 1912 with Icelandic American explorer and ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson disembarking a steamer in Seattle with spectacular tales of his most recent expedition. He’s already scheming about his return to the Arctic and dreaming of the fame and fortune associated with discovering new lands.
Stefansson quickly organizes the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which launches in 1913 with three ships: Mary Sachs, Alaska, and Karluk. He sails aboard the Karluk, the flagship, which—from the outset—Captain Robert Bartlett worries isn’t up to withstanding the ice, noting, the ship has “neither the strength to sustain ice pressure nor the engine power to force her way through loose ice.”
Sure enough, just several weeks after departure, Karluk becomes icebound. And, while Stefansson and five other expedition members are out allegedly caribou hunting, the ship is carried away by floes. The 25 souls who remain aboard suspect Stefansson—whom Levy reveals has a secret common-law Inupiat wife and young son—deliberately abandons the ship, which is eventually crushed by ice.
Now, crew members, their dogs, and a cat are stranded in subzero temperatures with limited supplies and makeshift shelters. The castaways, including two young children, fend for themselves on the ice while Bartlett and Inuit hunter Kataktovik walk some 700 miles over frozen sea and coastal Siberia in an effort to instigate a rescue mission.
Levy, who’s taught writing at WSU for more than 30 years, is a master storyteller whose latest thoroughly researched, spellbinding narrative is both profoundly horrifying and heroic. Like Labyrinth of Ice, which won the 2020 National Outdoor Book Award for history and the 2020 Banff Mountain Book Competition, Empire of Ice and Stone is an intense and riveting read.
Levy explores the leadership styles of both the self-sacrificing Bartlett and the self-serving Stefansson as well as what happens to the human psyche when terror and starvation set in against the backdrop of the harsh environment on the top of the world. His well-paced, captivating writing is chock-full of vivid imagery and description, making a gripping true tale all the more haunting, powerful, and hard to put down.