Jennifer Niven - Ada Blackjack

If you go into this book expecting a better book than Niven's brilliant first effort you'll be somewhat disappointed. Ada Blackjack isn't a bad book, by any means, and I enjoyed it, but it isn't nearly as good as The Ice Master.

First of all, it is supposed to a biography of Ada Blackjack. It isn't any more her biography than it is of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, or Milton Galle. (I don't include Fred Maurer in the above list since his diary didn't survive and hence he doesn't get as much coverage as the others.) So the question Niven poses on page 2, "Who was Ada Blackjack?," is not fully answered. She merely scratches the surface of these individuals. It's not Niven's fault, however. Ada didn't write or talk much so how can we really know who she was beyond the surface?

Winston Churchill wrote that "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." That rings very true for this work as well. Those whose diaries survived and/or whose parents wrote the most surviving letters are the ones who get to write the history. This fact is unfortunate for those of us who would like more depth and more accuracy to the story. Too frequently Niven puts words and thoughts into the participants' mouths and heads that may not have been there due to the lack of (corroborating or existing) evidence. If you read it uncritically, you'll probably enjoy it more than if you flip back to the sources and references or wonder where the author came up with certain suggestions.

Niven may be a better writer than historian. For instance, she claims that there was friction between Harold Noice and Stefansson before Noice even made the rescue. (beginning on about page 200) However, this was based on Noice's book written later, after the two were at each other's throats.

In summary, this is a good book, written by a talented author, but it lacks the detail (due to unavailability of records) that made Niven's first book so fantastic. I don't want to spoil the book by going into more details about what happens in the story.

from the publisher:

"Niven builds a solid and suspenseful tale around the framework of records and diaries to reveal an obscure woman's accidental heroism." --Library Journal
Ada Blackjack was an unlikely hero -- an unskilled 23-year-old Inuit woman with no knowledge of the world outside Nome, Alaska. Divorced, impoverished, and despondent, she had one focus in her life -- to care for her sickly young son. In September 1921, in search of money and a husband, she signed on as seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic.

It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to colonize desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island. Only two of the men had set foot in the Arctic before. They took with them six months' worth of supplies on Stefansson's theory that this would be enough to sustain them for a year while they lived off the land itself. But as winter set in, they were struck by hardship and tragedy. As months went by and they began to starve, they were forced to ration their few remaining provisions. When three of the men made a desperate attempt to seek help, Ada was left to care for the fourth, who was too sick to travel. Soon after, she found herself totally alone.

Upon Ada's miraculous return after two years on the island, the international press heralded her as the female Robinson Crusoe. Journalists hunted her down, but she refused to talk to anyone about her harrowing experiences. Only on one occasion -- after being accused of a horrible crime she did not commit -- did she speak up for herself. All the while, she was tricked and exploited by those who should have been her champions.

Jennifer Niven, author of The Ice Master, narrates this remarkable true story, taking full advantage of a wealth of primary sources, including Ada Blackjack's never-before-seen diaries, the unpublished journals of other major characters, and interviews with Ada's second son. Filled with exciting adventure and fascinating history -- as well as extraordinary photographs -- Ada Blackjack is a gripping and ultimately inspiring tale of a woman who survived a terrible time in the wild only to face a different but equally trying ordeal back in civilization.

Jennifer Niven's first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year 2000 by Entertainment Weekly. A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer, Niven and The Ice Master have appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Outside, the New York Times, and Writer's Digest, to name a few, and have been featured in full-length documentaries on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel. Translated into eight languages, The Ice Master has been nominated for numerous honors and was awarded Italy's prestigious Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002. She lives in Washington DC.