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What to Read Next (No. 236): Pioneering Heroes of the WWI Era
Featuring "The Facemaker" and Alfred Lansing's classic "Endurance"
Happy Friday, readers!
It’s been a history-packed couple weeks of reading for me, so today I’m sharing two recent favorites. Coincidentally, both are set against the backdrop of WWI and both feature pioneering heroes, one in the field of medicine and the other in the realm of polar exploration.
Given one of the titles featured today, it’s also a great time to make a special announcement:
I was stoked to see the large amount of interest in my 2023 plans for The Big Read, so I decided to start early on that reading list!
In October (just two months away!), we’ll tackle Frankenstein, and then we’ll read Alfred Lansing’s classic Endurance in November and December (that one will sort of function as a survey of polar exploration books).
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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
“Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.”
I’ve always been entranced by the well-populated niche genre of polar exploration books. (See my review of Icebound and subsequent interview with Andrea Pitzer.) It’s only recently, though, that I’ve gotten around to some of the classics of the subject: Endurance, The Worst Journey in the World, Shackleton, and others.
The first time I read Endurance, just last fall, it didn’t really connect with me and I gave it up after about 100 pages. I can’t really say why, but I wish I would have stuck with it, because this month I decided to read it again and came away absolutely floored by the resilience and endurance of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition crew.
The story itself is magnetic — it’s hard to pull yourself away from the insane, often unbelievable details:
In early 1915, Shackleton and 27 other men became trapped in Antarctic pack ice in their ship (named Endurance)
Eight months later, after surviving the Antarctic winter aboard the ship, the men abandoned the Endurance after it started being crushed by ice floes
For the next six months, the men lived on variously sized floes, moving whenever their home cracked and broke up
When they ran out of options in the spring of 1916, the group sailed to the uninhabited Elephant Island on three 20-foot boats — a one-week journey in the midst of ice-cold waters and winds like battering rams
Shackleton knew he had to make contact with some sort of settlement and decided on sailing with a small contingent of men to South Georgia Island, ~800 miles north and east of Elephant Island, on a 20-foot boat, in the roughest seas on the planet, with nothing but a sextant for navigation
Once landing on South Georgia, Shackleton had to trek across the treacherous mountains with scant supplies in order to make contact with the whaling settlement located there; it’s an island that would not be crossed again on foot for decades
From there, it took another handful of months to rescue the men on Elephant Island
Amazingly, every single man who was part of the expedition survived the 2-year ordeal — something that rarely happens in polar survival stories.
Beyond the story itself, Lansing — who would never write another book — smartly took a Hemingway-esque approach in describing the events just as they happened, without the need for flourish. The actual details are crazy enough that they don’t need anything but accurate telling.
Combined with Lansing’s utilization of short chapters, which wasn’t very common in 1950s non-fiction, Endurance is as compelling and readable as any adventure tale you’ll ever read.
Not only did the book revive Shackleton’s legend as an all-time great leader, it set the stage for every outdoor adventure/survival book that would come after it. The narrative-driven, journalistic approach would become the norm and the subject of polar exploration continues to attract readers to this day.
I hope you’ll join me in reading Endurance this November and December!
The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I by Lindsey Fitzharris
"[a] shattered arm excites our pity, an absent leg arouses our compassion, but a face ravaged by shrapnel . . . cannot fail to arouse a certain amount of repulsion."
In The Facemaker, Lindsey Fitzharris tells the expertly crafted story of Harold Gillies, a hero/surgeon who pioneered facial reconstruction surgery for injured soldiers in World War I.
World War I is often considered the first modern, industrial war. Humans got really good at killing other humans. But the medical sciences hadn’t yet caught up to the horrific costs of these weapons.
For men in the trenches, death often came quickly and brutally. When it didn’t, the treatment for an arm or leg injury would be a quick amputation and the soldier would more or less be on their way.
With a facial injury, however, the treatment was far more difficult. Let me be captain obvious here for a second by noting that the face does a lot. Breathing, eating/drinking, and talking are some practical things, but it goes beyond that: the face displays emotion, kisses a lover or a child goodnight, and contributes to your overall sense of self-worth.
Facial wounds hit a spiritual level that makes a limb amputation seem almost superficial.
Harold Gillies, a humble Kiwi, was just trying to do this part in helping soldiers recover and ended up pioneering the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery. (Do a Google image search of his name to see some of his incredible work. Warning: it’s a little grisly, but not too bad.)
Lindsey Fitzharris, medical historian-extraordinaire, made the story remarkably readable, always interesting, and surprisingly inspiring. It reminded me a lot of Erik Larson’s work, which are some of my favorite books in the history genre.
It should go without saying that some of the descriptions will be hard to read for the squeamish, but learning about the transforming effect of Gillies’ work was well-worth a few grimaces.
When I finished The Facemaker, it was an easy 5-star rating for me. An absolute must-read for even casual fans of the history genre, especially when it comes to the medical art.
That’s all for me this week! Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I really appreciate it.