Sunday, November 27, 2011

Module 11: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Anyone who knows me probably knows that I'm not a fan of the cold.  Once it's winter, you can count on me griping about it all the live-long day.  Still, I girded myself and tucked into Jennifer Armstrong's Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance all the same, knowing that it would probably make me crave hot chocolate and warm socks after a few pages (which it most certainly did).



In 1914, Earnest Shackleton and his crew of men went on a voyage to explore then-largely-unknown Antarctica with their ship called the Endurance.  Truly, it was an apt name, since barely before their true journey began, Endurance became lodged in the ice, slowly tipping over, to eventually be consumed by the ice.  Faced with a icy, deathly terrain, 27 crew members (including a professional photographer, as Shackleton had the foresight to realize that his journey was going to be historically important, and as such he brought both the photographer and in advance gained all rights to the crew diaries, etc.), sled dogs, and provisions, Shackleton made it his goal to achieve the impossible: keep all the men alive.  Amazingly, he did.  Along the way, the crew had to face many hardships -- they had to pull their own smaller boats across the frozen tundra, kill many of the sled dogs for food, and weather the deadly weather, often while trekking over ice that was patrolled from below by seal-hunting predators that could easily mistake a man for a seal.   


Lionel Greenstreet shows off his icy beard


Armstrong cites many reliable sources for her informational book for young readers.  Even when terms that may be difficult to grasp are presented, Armstrong navigates them deftly, providing explanations that do not patronize.  For example, the chapter that opens with information on navigation relates the following:

"How did they know where they were?  Since the outset of their voyage through featureless ocean and anonymous ice pack, the officers and crew of the Endurance had been able to track their exact location and chart their zigzagging progress on their maps.  This was before the use of radio signals to plot position, before radar, before satellites.  They used a few basic instruments, some almanacs, and math.

For centuries, mapmakers, astronomers, and navigators have marked the globe with imaginary lines of latitude, which are parallel to the equator (and are often called parallels), and lines of longitude (also called meridians), great circles that all run through the North and South poles.  The meridians are perpendicular to the parallels on the surface of the globe; that is, they meet at right angles, or ninety degrees.  When a navigator knows his coordinates -- the degree of latitude, and degree of longitude he is at -- he knows where on the wide, blank ocean he is.  But how does he know the latitude and longitude?

Astronomers have long known that the celestial bodies -- the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars -- follow regular and predictable paths through the heavens, and centuries of patient nighttime observation have produced detailed almanacs listing the daily positions of these bodies.  As a navigator moves farther north or south, the height of a star above the horizon changes.  Using an instrument called a sextant, the navigator can measure the height of the star above the horizon.  Then, by referring to the almanacs and making some calculations, he can determine how far north or south he is: that is his latitude.  No matter where on the globe the observer is, an accurate measurement of that star's height, or altitude, and the use of proper almanacs or tables will provide latitude.  

Longitude proved to be a harder puzzle to solve.  Astronomers have known for centuries that the earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full rotation -- one day.  Because a circle (one rotation) is 360 degrees, it is possible to divide 360 by twenty-four to find out how many degrees the earth spins in just one hour.  The answer is fifteen degrees.  With that information, longitude is within reach -- assuming accurate clocks.  Imagine a traveler going west with two clocks.  After several days, it is no longer noon when the clocks say twelve.  So the traveler adjusts the first clock to read twelve when it is noon where he is.  The second clock tells a different time, the time at the starting point.  If the different in time is one hour, the traveler knows he has gone fifteen degrees.  He can continue to travel as long as he wants, always resetting the first clock at noon, when the sun it at its highest point in the sky.  As long as he continues to wind the second clock, and as long as it is accurate, he will know the time difference between his present position and his starting point.  He can then convert the difference in time to a distance in degrees.


Most astronomers use the moon or the major planets for their occulations: Worsley used tiny Mercury once, "just for swank," to show he could do it" (Armstrong, 1998, pp. 72-73).

To write this easy-to-read account, Armstrong was lucky in that she had access to the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, Worsley's logbook, and other first-hand accounts of the Endurance expedition and survival.

The book is an excellent compilation of photos and records, and because of the many first-hand accounts available to researchers, there are many direct quotes and stories from the crew and officers aboard.  A full bibliography is presented at the end as well.  Young readers who love dogs may be a little put off by the multiple times the killing of the sled dogs is discussed, but Armstrong tells the full truth of the matter in a way that is understandable for young readers.  One of my personal favorite anecdotes is the toast that was raised every Saturday night in the common room (also called "the Ritz"):  To our sweethearts and wives -- may they never meet!" (Armstrong, 1998, p. 34).
One of the sled dogs

"This unbelievable story is enhanced by the vigorous prose; from the captivating introduction through the epilogue, it is the writing as much as the story that will rivet readers. The black-and-white photos, taken mostly on glass plates by the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, survived along with the men and are of exceptional quality" (Kirkus).

"Gr 6 Up-- This is a highly engaging account of Ernest Shackleton's bravery and leadership after his ship Endurance was crushed in the Antarctic ice in 1914. Armstrong's text reflects the hearty optimism, good humor, and resourcefulness that led to the survival of all 28 men after being stranded for 22 months. Excerpts from crew members' diaries and ghostly black-and-white photos of the ice-laden ship are included" (Reutter, 2004, para. 1).

Reviewing the audiobook version:

"It is a testimonial to the clockwork construction of the text of this book, its relentless narrative pull, and its detailed sense of reality that listening to it without the stunning visual material included in the print version is still a completely satisfying and compelling experience. The listener is swept along on a tide of anticipation: what else can possibly go wrong on Shackleton's 1914 attempt to cross Antarctica? And how do the men survive? Narrator Taylor Mali portrays the various voices of the motley crew — from the polished reserve of Shackleton himself to Captain Worsley's rough New Zealand growl — with generally successful consistency. His strongest suit, however, seems to lie in his ability to read long lists (there are a surprising number — from the contents of the Endurance's hold to the types of ice found in the Antarctic) with verve and drama. This amazing story will doubtless lead listeners back to the book itself to view the excellent charts, maps, and documentary photographs of Shackleton's incredible voyage" (Beavin, 2000, para. 1).


Adventure-seekers and explorers will surely love this book.  This book could be a good pick for discussions about extraordinary feats, courage, and perseverance.  There are the obvious winter/cold-themed displays that the book could fit in with as well.  I could see in the winter having a book talk with young readers and then making paper snowflakes (and maybe yarn bears to tape the snowflakes to)...


Beavin, K. (2000). Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance. Horn Book Magazine, 76(3), 340.

Kirkus Reviews (1998). Shipwreck at the bottom of the world. Retrieved November 27, 2011 from

Reutter, V. (2004). Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World (Book). School Library Journal, 50(5), 64-65.

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