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Kim's Book Reviews
| Home | Picture Books | Traditional Literature | Poetry | Nonfiction | Historical Fiction | Fantasy & Young Adult Fiction | Author Study: Lois Ehlert

by Jennifer Armstrong


Armstrong, Jennifer. SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc, 1998. ISBN 05178000136.


This book tells the story  of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition. He set out with a crew of twenty-seven men to sail to Antarctica, and be the first to cross the continent from one side to the other. The ship gets stuck in the ice pack and eventually sinks, leaving the men stranded. After a long and difficult journey across ice and tumultuous seas, all twenty-eight men survive and are rescued nineteen months after first becoming trapped in the ice.


Jennifer Armstrong begins her telling of this amazing story in a very compelling way. In her opening chapter, she asks the reader to imagine themselves in the most hostile place on earth, the Antarctic. She presents a vivid description of the conditions there, such as the minus 100 degree temperatures and the 200 mile per hour winds. She compares the size of the frozen sea  surrounding the continent in winter to  two times the size of the United States. After describing this harsh, hostile environment, she asks the reader to imagine being stranded there, and finally, states that  twenty-eight men  were stranded there  in 1915, and they all survived. This opening pulls the reader into the story; when I read this, I had to continue to see how they made it out alive.


After a brief look at  Shackleton's prior experience in the Antarctic, and  of other expeditions to the region, Armstrong introduces us to the major crew members of the expedition and we are on our way. Throughout the journey, she brings these crew members to life with anecdotes about practical jokes, physical descriptions, and direct quotes from their diaries. In one amusing account, she tells how crew members told navigator Hubert Hudson there was a cotume party at the whaling station and convinced him to go wearing only "a bedsheet and teapot lid tied with ribbons to his head." (p. 15) When Hudson arived at the party, he was the only one in costume. This earned him the nickname of Buddha for the rest of the voyage. 


The photos in the book, taken by photographer Frank Hurley during the adventure, go beyond mere documentation of the trip. In these photos we see crew members performing the arduous tasks of survival required of them daily during  this ordeal, but we also see them playing soccer, or posing with their beards encased in ice to show how frigid the air was. The two photos that stand out for me are the photo on page 43 which shows the ship rolled onto her port side from the pressure of the ice, and the photo on page 122 of the men standing on the shore of Elephant Island as Shackleton's rescue boat approaches.


The book is divided into chapters which represent significant events of the expedtition. The titles given to the chapters hint at what is to come and, in many cases, are so compelling they make it difficult to find a stopping point. The maps included at the beginning of the book are excellent references to pinpont the crew's location while reading. The entire voyage is outlined on one map, including dates and significant milestones that occurred along the way.


Armstrong's swift, stirring writing style takes us on this incredible journey with wonderful first person accounts, explanations about how to navigate using the sun, and in-depth descriptions of the terrain and weather that the men had to contend with. The facts presented in the book appear to be well researched. An extensive bibliography at the end of the book includes sources for general information about navigation and Antarctica as well as information specific to Shackleton's expedition. The book is extremely readable, feeling more like a novel than a non-fiction book. This is a wonderful adventure story that will appeal to adults, as well as middle school and high school students.