Monday, December 31, 2012

Nansen, by Anna Gertrude Hall

It's kind of funny choosing these books from a list of titles not knowing anything about them.  A book with this title could easily have been some historical coming-of-age romance, named for its protagonist.  But no, it's a biography, of some one I'd never heard of, and I'll tell you a secret- I REALLY liked it.  That says a lot; I've been disappointed by many of the juvenile biographies that the Newberys have led me to.

This biography is named for its title character, Fridtjof Nansen, who passed away just 10 years before it was written.  Fridtjof grew up in rural Norway, and from his youngest years showed an incredible inclination for anything outdoors.  He loved to hike and swim and ski, and had incredible endurance.  But he also developed early engineering skills as well, spending his fair money on tools and disassembling (and then reassembling) the household appliances.

Nansen had a wide range of academic gifts, and chose to study zoology (despite having a preference for other fields) because he thought it had more potential for allowing him to work outdoors in nature.  During his time at the university, it was suggested he join an expedition to the Arctic Ocean, and this was the start of his great love for Arctic exploration.  He noticed that in Greenland, driftwood washed up on the shore.  However, the country was devoid of trees, and the varieties of wood found must have traveled from Siberia.  Since the Gulf Stream was the only local current known at the time, Nansen decided that he needed to discover the course of travel for himself and head to the Arctic.

He is able to secure private funding for a fantastically-designed ship, which would rise above, rather than be crushed by, Arctic ice floes.  Because the expedition could last a minimum of three years, it was outfitted with a machine shop, a library of over 1,000 volumes, games, tools, musical instruments, food sufficient for three well-balanced meals daily, and kayaks, skis, sleds, and dozens of sled dogs to pull them on the ice for further exploration.  Partway into the journey, Nansen and one of his many companions decide to set off on foot because of their proximity to the North Pole, and attempt to reach it.  However, they can only travel so fast, and in September they had to dig themselves a small room in the snow and ice and hole up alone for months on end until they could safely travel again.  The adventures and accomplishments of this expedition (not even counting the ship) are almost beyond belief.  You should look them up because they're mind-boggling.  Also, the extreme conditions and suffering he endured in pursuit of knowledge are no laughing matter, either.

Later in his life, although he had no interest in politics, he found himself continually drawn into leadership roles.  He was pivotal in negotiations and the political maneuverings that allowed Norway to separate from Sweden into an autonomous nation.  And moved by the suffering in the First World War (the only World War ad the time of the book's publication) he took a personal interest in seeing the League of Nations established, persuading many of the smaller countries to ally themselves, and soliciting funding on behalf of prisoners of war that had been stranded inside Russia with no help of getting home.  And afterward, when the collapse of Russian government sent a new flood of refugees outward, he argued passionately for funding to help that country's starving peasants (although, he was dismayed to learn, his colleagues still held a grudge against Russia and denied the funding, arguing that it should instead come from private sources).

Fridtjof Nansen was quite an incredible individual, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn about him!  And Sue, this is totally a you book.

Also, our illustrator, Boris Artzybasheff, illustrated several other Newbery Honor books (Gay Neck and The Wonder Smith and His Son).

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