Book Review: A Passion For Danger

A Passion For Danger: Nansen’s Arctic Adventures, by Francine Jacobs

This book is the sort of adventuresome biography, of famed Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, that I would have loved to have read as a kid. Although this book is subtitled in such a way that a reader would think that the book was devoted entirely to Nansen’s two famous polar exploration missions, this is not the case, and the book is a full (albeit short, at about 160 pages) treatment of Nansen’s whole life from his childhood as part of a blended family outside of 19th century Christiana (now Oslo) to his death at the age of sixty-eight as a famous polar explorer and humanitarian whose dogged determination to further knowledge and exploration about the Arctic were matched only by his patriotism for a free and independent Norway (which he lived to see, becoming independent Norway’s first ambassador to the United Kingdom) and his concern for the well-being of both the Inuits of Greenland (about whom he wrote a book) and Russian refugees from Communism to whom he gave free passage through Norway to other countries through Nansen passports. Such a varied and complicated life is well worthy of reading about and reflecting about, as it demonstrates Nansen was not only a man of considerable physical courage in facing the dangers of Arctic exploration but also a man of considerable moral courage as well in seeking freedom for himself and providing asylum for others.

That broader context aside, this book focuses mainly on two brief periods in Nansen’s life, his first-ever crossing of Greenland, going from the remote Eastern coast of Greenland to its slightly more inhabited Western coast with a crew of four Norweigians and two Sami skiers who were initially hesitant about skiing one way across the dangerous and remote country of Greenland. By successfully traversing the dangerous area, including a continental glacier in the middle over a mile above sea level, Nansen’s exploration both increased the knowledge of this remote and dangerous area, allowed him to get to know the Inuit people, with whom there was a strong feeling of mutual respect and concern [1]. It was just before this trip that Nansen found out his Ph.D. dissertation in zoology had been successful. Since his dangerous journey across Greenland was also successful, it inspired a method of exploration known as the “Norwegian Method” that focused on small teams with specialized equipment and considerable training as opposed to the American method of expensive and massive operations requiring large numbers of ships, men, and supplies. It was after this initial success, done despite the lack of faith in his abilities by the Norwegian government itself, that he proposed a trip along supposed currents in the Arctic moving near the North Pole, based on wreckage patterns that he had noticed in a couple of failed polar exploration missions.

The second aspect on which this book focuses is his effort to demonstrate that an Arctic current moves north towards the North Pole that travels between Jan Mayen Land and Greenland that would allow polar explorers to piggyback on the current to get closer to the Pole. Again, his idea was thought to be ridiculous by many, and suicidal by some, but despite considerable danger, including the theft of valuable supplies by clever Arctic foxes while on Francis Josef Land, attacks by polar bears, and not having as much coal or as many sled dogs as he had planned, again he and his men were able to make it back from their exploration alive, having traveled to a point only a couple hundred miles away from the North Pole, the furthest point north that had been recorded as traveled to that time. The resulting fame of that trip allowed Nansen and his wife, a lovely and talented opera singer named Eva (who died young at only forty-eight years of age) to settle down, as much as a seminomadic Viking can settle down, at least, and write and speak about the people, animals, terrain, and oceans of the Arctic and become a global celebrity while remaining a humble if driven man.

This book has several qualities that make it particularly worthwhile for its reading audience of bright preteen to teen male readers. For one, it demonstrates that physical courage and moral courage can exist in the same person, as well as physical strength and stamina and considerable intellectual and cultural sensitivity. These qualities are often pitted against each other but are united in this particularly heroic but still human Norwegian explorer. Similarly, Nansen’s life in many ways is a model of his country’s way of going about matters, frugally and with considerable pluck and daring, and with the courage to succeed when many lose heart and despair. Among the most serious challenges Nansen faced were the challenges of boredom and inattention in a dangerous and unforgiving world, and his achievement in preserving the lives of those who traveled with him in his dangerous explorations speaks highly of his humanity as well as his skill in dealing with the conditions of the Arctic. Given that the Arctic is an area of contemporary interest and competition among nations [2], perhaps Nansen’s example will inspire others who seek to follow him into that area as people of both great courage and great humanity, seeking to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding while not destroying a land of bleak and often fragile beauty.

[1] When Nansen left Greenland after wintering there, the author quotes one of his Inuit friends as telling him, “Now you are going back into the great world from which you came to us; you will find much that is new there, and perhaps you will soon forget us. But we shall never forget you (64).”

[2] See, for example:

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I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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