Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Last Place On Earth (Steak Knives)

I really did love this book. In terms of enjoyment alone, this is a Cadillac. Still, it had its flaws in closer scrutiny and retrospect, so I can only say it's a solid steak knives and recommend you read it anyway.

'The Last Place On Earth' refers to the South Pole, the target of a 'race' between Amundsen (a Norwegian) and Scott (a Brit), as the last great terrestrial discovery. Everest and the Marianas Trench aside, the book really does impart a sense that, at the time, this was the last blank space on the map, and the last great achievement to be had (until the space race and moon landing much later in the 20th Century transcended the issue altogether).

The pleasure of the read is in the gripping account of the adventure, of course. Traveling to the antarctic isn't something on my dance card any time soon, and Huntford takes you there at a time when it was new to human eyes and experience. Exciting stuff by definition. Still, Huntford's ability to really call to the fore the fundamental differences between the Amundsen and Scott expeditions were absolutely fascinating, and he really does shed some important scrutiny on the age of adventure, and the toll it takes on body and spirit (before and after the quest ends).

That Scott was a bungler and incompetent leader is without doubt. The flaw of this book is in how much Huntford harps on this, seemingly forgiving many of Amundsen's flaws by virtue of his victory in reaching the pole first, and returning alive. There's a double standard here that rankles, as the absence of a bias would still show (I think) Amundsen's superiority and reasoned approach to the problem of attaining the pole. He's a tragic hero in the end. I'd like to have seen both of them presented with all their warts from start to finish.

Still, as I say, it's as great a read as I've had in a while. I gripe because it left me wanting to read other accounts to temper the bias, or to see how Scott might be defended for all his error, failure of leadership, and lack of preparation...

Next in this genre has to be the controversy around attaining the North Pole, of course... I'll be starting here...

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