‘Shackleton’s Heroes’ is a mess of diary entries, lacks explanation

By A Contributor

Aaron Pauls
Contributing writer

The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance party in Antarctica is one of the most amazing exploration stories in known history. That a man could be stranded on that vast icy desert with a large party of men and not lose a single one is mind blowing.

A lesser known story is the one that was taking place at the same time on the other side of the continent, where the crew of the Aurora under the command of Aenes Mackintosh struggled to set up supply tents for Shackleton when he crossed the South Pole. In a strange coincidence, they too lost their ship and were stranded, but worked themselves to death trying to get his supplies set up anyway. “Shackleton’s Heroes” is the story of these men ... sort of.

Before I go any further, I will say this, Mackintosh’s crew undoubtedly had a more harrowing experience than Shackleton’s. Their story of perseverance in the most hostile climate on Earth is nothing short of amazing and is worth finding out about. That being said, I think Shackleton’s Heroes does not do the story justice and is a bit of a poorly put together mess.

I have multiple gripes about Shackleton’s Heroes so I’ll try to focus on the main ones. The first is that the title is misleading. The fact is that Shackleton never made it to the South Pole, let alone the other side and never used the supply stores. In fact, none of them have ever been found.

So “the epic story of the men who kept the Endurance expedition alive” is just a plain falsehood. They had no interaction whatsoever with Endurance party. This trumping up of the title in click-baity fashion is completely unnecessary; the story is good enough on its own. My main problem is that it seems lazy, poorly put together, and can be difficult to follow. The main reason for this is that more than 50 percent of the word count is quotes from the diaries of the explorers slapped on the page, often with no context or editing other than telling us who wrote it. There are whole pages which, except for the headings and author, are nothing but quotes. These often don’t expand the story at all. They are just a guy giving meteorological readings and saying something about breakfast or how fast they traveled that day or that his foot’s sore. The reason there are so many is that there is seemingly a section for every single calendar day that he could find a diary entry for. The bit on Feb. 9 is three quoted lines ripped from a diary on how the writer “had a weird dream.” This bit in no way advances my understanding of the story of the mission and this book is rife with trivialities like that. Massive portions of it could’ve been summarized in two or three sentences.

My other biggest problem with the book is the lack of general quality. Some diary passages are given prefaces that are then directly contradicted by the passage. For example, the preface to a diary passage reads, “Joyce did not acknowledge Richard’s effort.” The passage (written by Joyce) then reads “[...] so Richards went back a little way (and) spotted [the dropped items] through the binoculars about half a mile off (and) brought them back.” If that’s not acknowledgment then tell me what is. Further, McOrist also fails to explain things that are not evidently self-explanatory. As an example, there’s a short diary blurb about a sledding day which ends with the diary writer talking about how he and his friends “laughed until we cried talking about it.” The preface only tells me that there was “a rare light moment this day”; the diary passage is very confusingly written, and McOrist never clarifies what that funny moment was.

Finally, at least one of the footnotes in this book is hilariously unhelpful. A diary entry says the men saw a “Skua Gull” which leads to a footnote telling me it should’ve just been called a “Skua” and that it’s related to gulls. Well, that clears it up. It does not tell me what a Skua is or anything helpful like that.

I didn’t like this book but you might. If you’re really intrigued by the idea of a diary compilation with some explanation, then you might enjoy this.

The diaries are not amended for modern day language down to them using “+” and “& ” in place of “and.” If you want full immersion into the speech of the time and are tired of authors getting in the way, go for it. I, myself, prefer the author to study and pare down the material into a more easily followed story than to be given all.

Aaron Pauls is a customer satisfaction manager at Engrain in Manhattan.

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