"Finishing is one thing," a far wiser friend
once counseled when I was in the throes of writing a particularly intractable chapter of my book, The Lost Men
. He paused and fixed me with an odd look. "After the manuscript goes off in the post, that's when it gets really difficult."
Of course, I didn't understand. It was my first book, and I was still in the trenches. At the time, finishing seemed as remote as victory in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And in fact, I happened to be writing about events of 1916 at the time, only they took place at the bottom of the globe, far from the stalemate on the Western Front. The Lost Men is about Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914?1917 expedition, albeit a part of the endeavor neglected in the swell of books and films about the explorer in recent years. His exploits aboard the Endurance are the stuff of legend: his bold voyage to Antarctica, the tragic sinking of his ship, his daring journey across frigid storm-tossed waters to summon rescue for his men. But in the shadows was a second ship called the Aurora, which he had dispatched to the opposite side of Antarctica to build a lifeline of food and fuel depots. For what Shackleton set out to accomplish was the first coast-to-coast crossing of the continent, and he knew it would be impossible to carry enough supplies for the 1,500-mile journey. Unaware that the Endurance had sunk in 1915 before she even reached terra firma, the men of the Aurora, called the Ross Sea party, believed that the lives of Shackleton's party hung in the balance and marched 1,356 miles to build the depots. This, despite the fact that their own ship had disappeared in a gale, leaving them stranded in Antarctica with only the clothes on their backs and precious little in the way of supplies and gear.
When I began my research, I immediately met an impasse. Only two complete diaries of the Ross Sea party members survived, polar historians told me, explaining why a definitive chronicle of the expedition had yet to be written. Daunted but hopeful, I began tracking down the descendents of the members and searching archives in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. In the end, I found sixteen diaries and logs of the men. As the chorus of voices expanded, a vibrant tone poem of their experiences, emotions, and thoughts emerged, bracingly free of the patina of discretion that so often clouds official accounts and erases all trace of humanity. "We came to the Antarctic looking for adventure, we found it, so why complain?" wrote the Scottish boatswain, Scotty Paton, after the ship's rudder had been crushed by pack ice and the Aurora was perilously close to sinking. Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith, the Cambridge-educated chaplain, thought the bo'sun was a gruff old salt "straight out of Treasure Island." Paton, in turn, dubbed Spencer-Smith and the rest of the college boys on the expedition as the "FuFu gang." Then there was their leader, Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, the debonair merchant naval officer with a cut-glass accent whose last voyage had been to the Pacific, hunting for lost pirate treasure. He went forth in search of high adventure, only to realize too late that what he most wanted was to be with his wife and baby daughter, born the month before he sailed, his longing evident in letters home. And then there was the plain-talking, hard-drinking Ernest Joyce ? described variously by his mates as "bombastic" and a "buccaneer." "Talking is easy and everyone is wise after the event," he taunted, seemingly looking over my shoulder as I wrote.
Finally, now, I understand what my friend meant. After hearing these voices for so long, it is impossible to imagine living without them. For years, I would wake and settle in at my desk, opening the diary transcripts as naturally as if they were my own, and read until I began to piece together the story and see a glimmer of their motives. My accustomed routine continued, even as the book was in production. There was always a quote to track down for an interviewer, a fact to check for the British edition. Then, sometime after the first hardcover arrived on my doorstep, I realized that this time was drawing to a close. The voices are scored in my memory, like the etchings on the wax cylinder of a phonograph, so they will never entirely fade. But I will never know them quite so well again.
It is rare to find an unexplored corner of history, and it was a real joy to tell the Ross Sea party's story. (Like other varieties of pain, the agonies of writing tend to fade with time, too.) So, if you don't mind, I'm reminiscing this week, and I'm going to write about five memorable days of the last five years I spent working on this book. (Hopefully, it will be more interesting than a real-time account of my efforts to cajole a finicky pump into expelling thousands of gallons of water from our basement, pouring through the jumbled stone foundation thanks to the Biblical rains in Massachusetts of the last few days.)
The first day, then, was in 1994, when I turned to chapter XIII, page 244 of a first edition of Shackleton's book South ? "the fortunes and misfortunes of the Ross Sea party and the Aurora." Facing page 271 was a photograph of the men, uniformed and expectant in 1914, and I wondered, "Who are you?" That was the beginning.