Books & Literature

Book Review: Shackleton, by Ranulph Fiennes

BIOGRAPHY: An authoritative biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton from polar adventurer Ranulph Fiennes.

A true Boys’ Own Adventure—told by someone who has been there

Sir Ranulph Fiennes has been described as the greatest living explorer, so who better to write a biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century? Fiennes brings a unique perspective to this biography as one of his own expeditions showed doubters that Shackleton’s plan to traverse Antarctica on foot was possible. Although Fiennes is a wonderful storyteller, highlighting his personal experiences initially comes across as boasting. However, as the biography progresses, one begins to appreciate what Fiennes is aiming to do is to try to help ordinary people understand what drives explorers such as himself and Shackleton.

Leaving school at just 16, Shackleton began his career in the Merchant Navy and by the age of 24 in 1898, had become a master mariner. Shackleton became third officer on Captain Scott’s first expeditionary ship Discovery but was sent home due to illness. Shackleton’s fervent ambition to lead his own expedition was achieved with the Nimrod between 1907 and 1909. Fiennes admires the courage which Shackleton exhibited when he turned back just 100 miles from the pole to save the lives of himself and his men, .

On his return to England, he was knighted, awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and embarked on a lecture tour to raise money to repay his backers. Given Amundsen’s triumph on reaching the South Pole in 1912, and the terrible fate of Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition, Shackleton realised it would be even harder to mount another expedition. Nonetheless, he began to raise money for another expedition to Antarctica with the aim of crossing the continent. Although WWI began just five days earlier, the Endurance left British waters on August 8, 1914.

Fiennes notes Shackleton’s somewhat eccentric recruitment process which included questions such as “Do you sing?” plus his “classless” approach of dividing the ship’s chores amongst all members of the expedition to build harmony within the crew. This was especially important when ice was encountered much earlier than expected and the ship was trapped. Rather than being released by the spring thaw, the Endurance was crushed by the ice and in November 1915 she sank.

The detailed research describes in vivid detail the terrifying voyage to Elephant Island and the construction of a larger boat to sail to South Georgia to seek help. Fiennes reiterates the courage and leadership of Shackleton which was central to the success of this mission such as taking a troublemaker with him, rather than leaving him behind to cause disruption.

Considering the dangers the author has faced, he clearly understands what drove Shackleton on, speaking of the incredible hardships which are “eclipsed by the rose-tinted spectacles through which the prospect of a grand adventure is viewed.” Examining his subject’s character, Fiennes notes that the skills and courage Shackleton exhibited in leading and motivating his men are still being studied today, even at Harvard Business School.

Nonetheless, I must admit that despite this well-written and researched biography, I still see him as selfish and self-serving. As Fiennes reminds us, Shackleton failed to put the best interests of his family first. He was a very poor business man and financial manager. Additionally, he neglected his wife, Emily, even when he was at home, often paying attention to other men’s wives, and had virtually no relationship with his three children. While telling the story of the rescue and survival of Shackleton and all his men, the biography may seek to distinguish the man from the myth he later became. Unfortunately, it fails to do so as it pays too little attention to Shackleton as a man, husband and father as opposed to Shackleton the explorer.

There is currently an exhibition at the SA Museum on Shackleton: Thin Ice VR from 20 November 2021 to 6 February 2022.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: September 2021
RRP: $35.00

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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