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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

by Jennifer Niven

In the bestselling The Ice Master, Jennifer Niven chronicled the doomed voyage of the Karluk in 1913-14. In an aside to that story, Niven mentioned that one of the survivors, Fred Maurer, returned seven years later to the scene of the disaster. That aside has now matured into Ada Blackjack.

Fred Maurer was a martyr to Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s idea that the Arctic was a “friendly” place where anyone with a modicum of skill and imagination could prosper. In 1921, with poorly thought out ideas of colonizing an island for England, Stefansson sent Maurer, three other young men, and an Inuit woman, Ada Blackjack, to live on Wrangel Island off the Siberian coast. Stefansson comes across in Niven’s book as manipulative, self-interested, and arrogant. These characteristics are the main reason why, by the time a relief ship got through to the supposed colony in 1923, Ada was the only one still alive.

Using unpublished notes, diaries, and interviews, Niven has turned that two-year ordeal into a compelling saga of suffering and survival. In the process, she tells, for the first time, Ada Blackjack’s story. At 23 years old, Ada was thrown into a situation for which she was completely unprepared. Taken along as seamstress and cook, she taught herself to hunt, shoot, and build skin boats and nursed the last of the men to die through the agonies of scurvy.

Niven, a popular historian in Atlanta, does a splendid job of chronicling Ada’s struggle to overcome her fears and desires so that she could survive and return to her invalid son. All of the main characters in the expedition come across as complex and believable. Niven has created an enthralling epic that brings a little known chapter of Arctic history to life.