Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


True North by Bruce Henderson


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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I admit readily that my education remains so incomplete as to have never even heard of Dr. Frederick Cook until I read Bruce Henderson’s new book, True North. I learned in my youth that Admiral Robert Peary was the first explorer to reach the North Pole, and I accepted that fact at face value. Thanks to Henderson’s case in favor of Cook reaching the pole before Peary, I and others may draw our own conclusions about which explorer was more or less likely to have been the first to reach the pole. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Two, “North Greenland Expedition,” pp. 42-49:


A warm, sunlit afternoon in early June 1891, a schooner-rigged auxiliary steam vessel was towed from a pier at the foot of Baltic Street in Brooklyn. Her complement of sails was discolored from age and her wooden decks stained with the oil of countless slaughtered seals and whales.

Under her own power, the fifty-year-old barkentine of 280 tons, her bow and hull sheathed with iron for Arctic travel, swung out into the East River. Up the bustling waterway, ferryboats and steamships saluted the publicized departure with shrill whistles and dipping flags, as passengers on deck waved white handkerchiefs and gave hail and farewell.

Many in the crowd that had appeared dockside for the departure of SS Kite were there to glimpse the determined young woman the newspapers had been clamoring about. Never before had an American woman joined an Arctic expedition, and the sentiment of the day was divided: she was either very brave or extremely foolish. And why was her husband allowing her to go on an all-male expedi­tion? Or, more pointedly, why had he agreed to take her?

After goodbyes from friends and strangers alike, Josephine Peary had gone to her cabin to find it filled with flowers. Among them was a bouquet from Cook, who had been told by Peary, when he mentioned that his wife would be coming along, that it was to be a second honeymoon for the couple.

If Cook had any reservations about Josephine’s participation, he kept them to himself. The same could not be said for other expedi­tion members, all of them young, single men. The idea of sharing what would be close quarters with a married couple for more than a year had not gone over well.

As to the wisdom of taking his wife on the expedition, Peary would explain that she was healthy and enthusiastic and that nei­ther of them saw any reason why she could not endure conditions and environment similar to those in which Danish wives in Greenland passed years of their lives. “First and foremost,” Peary acknowledged, was her “desire to be by my side.” No doubt it was mutual. He noted, too, that Josephine had a strong inclination for the outdoor life, as when he had taken her “tramping” in the rugged woods of western Maine and she showed that she considered, like him, the open air “the breath of life.”

Apart from the ship’s crew and nine scientists and professors from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences along as passengers, the remainder of the seven-member North Greenland expedition party—set to disembark at the farthest northern point attained by the vessel—was composed of men who shared little except an appetite for adventure.

A young Norwegian skiing champion and recent arrival in the United States, Eivind Astrup, who, like the others, happened upon a notice in the newspaper seeking volunteers, was the party’s only expert skier. Cheerful and broad-shouldered, Astrup, twenty, was still learning English but already knew about traveling on ice. He was the only member, other than Peary, to have been tested by the severe climatic conditions in northern latitudes.

Another of the flood of young men who wrote to Peary asking to be considered was Longdon Gibson, twenty-six, of Flushing, New York. He was a marksman and experienced hunter and climber. A member of the Brown-Stanton party that had explored the Grand Canyon the preceding year, Gibson had learned boat handling while shooting rapids. At six-foot-three, solid and well conditioned, he would add a physical presence to the team.

John M. Verhoeff, twenty-five, a geologist from St. Louis, admitted in his introductory letter to Peary that he rated his chances of returning alive no better than one in ten. A Yale gradu­ate, Verhoeff had also studied meteorology. When Peary did not answer his initial query, Verhoeff wrote again, making an offer not to be refused: if selected, he would contribute $2,000 tO the expe­dition, an amount that nearly covered the charter fee to hire Kite and her fifteen-man crew.

The final member of the party was Matthew Henson, of average height and slightly underweight. A twenty-four-year-old Negro of freeborn parents from Maryland, he was orphaned by the time he was seven. At twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy, sailing from one exotic port to the next for five years. Upon quitting the sea, he worked various jobs—stevedore, bellhop, night watchman—before settling in Washington, D.C., where he was hired as a stock boy by one of the capital’s most prominent hatters and furriers. He was in the backroom one day when the owner asked him to find a size seven and three-eighths pith helmet. Bringing the requested hat to the front of the store, Henson heard his boss say, “This is the boy I was telling you about, Lieutenant.”

Standing ramrod straight in a U.S. Navy officer’s uniform was a tall man with bushy hair the color of burnt sand. “My name is Peary,” he said as he tried on the sun helmet. “I need a boy to go with me to Central America, as a valet. Keep my clothes and quar­ters clean. Must be honest with regular work habits.”

Henson jumped at the chance to travel to faraway places again.

After a year in Nicaragua, Henson returned reluctantly to his stock boy job. Soon, Peary found him a job more to his liking at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a messenger. It was there, working for Peary again, that Henson learned about the upcoming expedition to Greenland and eagerly volunteered, even though he was a newly­wed, having married in April 1891. His position, as described by Peary, would be to serve as his “body-servant.”

Peary seemed to harbor no doubts about Henson’s fitness for Arctic duty. Henson secretly did, however, wondering whether a man of his race, whose ancestors had lived for centuries in the tropi­cal heat of Africa, could withstand the opposite in climatic condi­tions. But when confronted in an offensive tone by a naval officer who suggested that no Negro could survive subzero cold, Henson expressed such confidence in his ability to do so that the officer promised to pay him one hundred dollars if he returned “without any fingers or toes frozen off.”

As Kite sailed into the open waters of Long Island Sound, conver­sation ceased and all onboard fell silent with their own thoughts.

Josephine, who had come back on deck for their boisterous depar­ture from port, returned to her cabin. Looking at the bouquet sent by Cook, she later wrote in her diary, she felt the first pangs of homesickness with the realization that once these withered she wouldn’t see another rose for a long time.

Standing at the rail amidship, Cook understood that the year to come would be an education as well as an adventure. He already had an inkling that “pioneering along the borders of the unknown” could become his chief vocation.

Two days earlier, Peary had presented Cook with a four-page typed contract with “F.A. Cook” penned into nine blank spaces. The boilerplate contract did not describe his specific duties, only that he was to “obey all directions and fully carry out all instruc­tions” by Peary. As Cook read the provisions, he saw that he was not to write or publish any book or other narrative that pertained to the expedition until one year after the “official narrative of said expedition, approved by Peary, had been published and offered for sale.” Cook signed “Frederick A. Cook M.D.” on the last page underneath Peary’s bold “R. E. Peary U.S.N.” The signatures were curiously dissimilar. Cook’s was cramped and utilitarian, while Peary’s had the thick, bold sweeps that would become his lifelong trademark and that could have been caused only by his pressing the point of the pen onto the paper in a conscious effort to make an eye-catching inscription.

Every nook and cranny below deck was crammed with supplies and equipment. Topside, the deck was strewn with boxes and crates—lashed down to prevent shifting at sea—and laden with coal, leaving only narrow aisles. The stench of the old vessel with its oily bilge water was nauseating, and this, along with pitching decks in heavy seas, was to cause severe discomfort among newcomers to shipboard travel.

The expedition’s equipment was modest and inexpensive, but they did have a full larder: a year and a half worth of food, including tea, coffee, sugar, milk, evaporated vegetables, compressed pea soup, biscuit, cocoa, and pemmican, a dried food made of meat, fat, a little sugar, and currants packed in tins—long a staple for polar expedi­tions because it did not spoil. They had only a small amount of fresh meat, which would not keep long aboard ship anyway; they intended to hunt game at their winter camp. They had lumber and timber to build sledges and living quarters, snowshoes and skis, guns and ammo, rubber boots for the ice, stoves and tins of alcohol fuel, extra woolen clothing, cameras and film.

After proceeding cautiously through fogbound seas for two weeks, Kite became hemmed in by ice in the Belle Isle Straits at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The ship was secured to an iceberg, and block ice was taken aboard to replenish the water supply. A playful snowball fight broke out one afternoon, as they waited for the summer breakup to progress. On the third day, a narrow passage through the ice suddenly appeared, and Kite took it.

For the next several days the vessel was tossed on rough seas, dur­ing which time most passengers stayed in their bunks, too sick to eat or move about. By the time the gale let up, they had been pushed far into the Davis Strait.

In the mist off the starboard bow lay their first sight of Greenland, the mysterious land discovered by Norsemen five hun­dred years before Columbus arrived in America. Although its perimeter was not then known, Greenland would prove to be a great pear-shaped island nearly 1,500 miles long and 900 miles across at its widest. Excepting the southern tip and some rocky fringes, it was all ice up to two miles thick at its center.

Everyone came on deck for the view. Steep, black cliffs two thou­sand feet high with towering tops covered by sparkling snow rose vertically from the sea. Dwarfing these majestic fortresses from the rear was an ice dome reaching two miles into the sky. In front of the coastal cliffs sat gleaming icebergs of all sizes and shapes—some azure blue and others pure white—waiting to break free and be launched into the sea.

They followed the shoreline north until putting in at the Danish settlement of Godhavn, on the island of Disko, for a brief stop. The highlights of the visit were a European-style dinner as the guests of the governing Danish official and his wife, and a hike up a 2,400-foot summit from which the icebergs dotting the horizon looked like an armada under full sail.

Then it was on to Upernavik, the most northern Danish settle­ment, consisting of four frame houses, a tiny church, and a scatter­ing of native turf huts built into the hillsides. They were properly greeted by the governor and his wife, and did some duck hunting, bagging several dozen and finding more than a hundred eggs to fry up for breakfast.

With no doctor in residence, Cook was asked to treat the infirm. He took his ship’s medical bag and made house calls, even perform­ing minor surgery on one Eskimo—removing a bone fragment from a badly healed broken arm.

The next morning they departed, making their way slowly through the floating ice that marked the entrance to the formidable Melville Bay ice pack. With stops and starts as the ice allowed, they sailed on. Several afternoons were spent by Cook, Astrup, Gibson, and Henson measuring and sawing the lumber for the structure they planned to build at their winter camp.

On July 14, after standing on the bridge as Kite butted her way through the ice, Peary went below to warm up. When he came back on deck, he stepped behind the wheelhouse to glance over the stern. The vessel at that moment was reversing its engine—a back-and­forth maneuver was often used by the experienced captain and capa­ble ice master, Richard Pike, to gain forward momentum for the reinforced bow to slice through the ice.

At that instant, a heavy chunk of ice jammed the rudder. The wheel was torn from the helmsman’s grip, spinning so wildly that its spokes were invisible. Simultaneously, the heavy iron tiller swung over, striking Peary in the leg.

Josephine reached her husband first. She found him standing unsteadily on his left foot, looking “pale as death.”

“Don’t be frightened, dearest,” said Peary, who later revealed he had heard his leg snap. “I have hurt my leg.”

He was carried to a cabin below. Ice-cold from shock, he was cov­ered with blankets and given a shot of whiskey. His boot was cut off and trousers torn open. Both major bones of the right leg were frac­tured below the knee.

Cook, along with several doctors from the Academy of Natural Sciences, examined the leg. They concurred that the break was a clean one, and it was easily set. The leg was rested in a cotton-padded box with room for swelling. Cook administered an injection of morphine to help Peary sleep.

The next day, after checking for infection, Cook dressed the wounded leg and fashioned a sturdy splint to further immobilize it. He told Peary he would have to remain bedridden and not put any weight on his leg for a month.

The first several nights Peary suffered mightily. More painkillers and sedatives were administered; delirium and sleeplessness followed.

Day and night, Josephine and Cook took turns nursing him. At one point, Josephine asked her husband, withering in pain, if he could tell her what she could possibly do to make him more com­fortable.

“Oh, my dear, pack it in ice until some one can shoot it!”

There was hushed talk among expedition members as to the advisability of continuing on, given Peary’s incapacitating injury. Even Josephine found herself wishing she could take him “to some place where he can rest in peace.” No one dared broach the subject with Peary. In answer to anyone who asked, Cook shared his opinion that their leader would have a full recovery, and by spring—when most of the expedition’s work was planned—he should be fine.

In the small hours of July 26, Peary was awakened by Captain Pike and informed that Kite was abreast of McCormick Bay, two miles north of Cape Cleveland, and that because of unbroken ice to the north they could proceed no farther. Kite would soon have to turn for home or risk being icebound until next year.

Peary gave the order for his team to disembark and set up winter camp.

When it was time, the leader was carried off the ship, lashed to a plank.


Henderson presents information about the character of Peary, Cook and others in ways that incline the reader toward support of Cook’s claim that he reached the North Pole first, but by the end of the book, most readers will conclude that the controversy is likely to remain unresolved. In addition to a fine polar tale, True North also conveys aspects of human behavior that will resonate with most readers.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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