December 29, 2022


The Indestructible Tom Crean: Heroic Explorer of the Antarctic. By Jennifer Thermes. Viking. $19.99.

     This is one of those byways-of-history stories that, when you read it, makes you shake your head in wonder both at the tale itself and at the fact that you never heard it before – even though it deals with subject matter of widespread interest, about which a great deal has been written. It is the story of a man who was an important part of no fewer than three Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century, a grand age of exploration and a time of tremendous triumph and equally tremendous tragedy. Apparently undefeatable and nearly indefatigable, Tom Crean was a member of the 1901-1904 expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott; Scott’s later (1910-1913) famed and ill-fated voyage; and the equally famous and eventually triumphant 1914-1917 journey led by Ernest Shackleton. Educated men and fine chroniclers, Scott and Shackleton wrote extensively about their adventures and in so doing became the stuff of legend, as did the trials and tribulations and sometimes terrors of exploring the Antarctic vastness. Crean, modest and lightly educated, did his duty and often went well beyond it, but communicated very little about it in later life and wrote nothing substantive – one explanation of his near-total obscurity. In addition, he was Irish and returned to Ireland after long service with the British explorers and elsewhere in the British Navy. But by the time he retired, Ireland was in the throes of rebellion against British hegemony, and it would have been imprudent, possibly even unsafe, for Crean to have drawn too much attention to himself. So he did not.

     Thank goodness, though, that Jennifer Thermes is shining a long-overdue spotlight on him in a picture book intended for children but every bit as fascinating, even awe-inspiring, for adults. With simple, clear maps, beautifully impressionistic scenes of Antarctic landscapes, and well-imagined visualizations of the explorations’ highlights and traumas, Thermes takes readers to and into a long-vanished time period still widely considered the Heroic Age of polar exploration. On his first voyage, Crean is rescued when he falls through the thick ice – twice – while helping clear channels for the Discovery, and rejoices with the rest of the explorers when, after two years, the ship can finally emerge from the ice pack and head home. On his second trip, the famously fatal race to the South Pole between Scott and Roald Amundsen. Crean goes snow-blind after helping rescue crew members beneath whom an ice floe breaks off – and eventually, astonishingly, trudges 35 miles across the ice, all alone, to save the lives of two fellow crew members. He earns a medal for exceptional bravery – but is unable to save Scott, who freezes to death after reaching the South Pole later than Amundsen did.

     Crean was not yet done with Antarctica, nor it with him. His third voyage, with Shackleton, is better-equipped in many ways, but the unrelenting pressure of ice crushes Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, and everyone abandons ship. This leads to Shackleton, Crean and three other crew members making an almost unbelievably harrowing two-week journey in a 23-foot boat through some of the most violent and treacherous waters on Earth, eventually making it to an extremely remote island where Shackleton, Crean and one other crewman have to climb mountains thought to be impossible and impassable. They not only survive but also are able to rescue all the members of the crew of the Endurance, a survival story still justifiably celebrated today.

     Thermes manages to bring much of this incredible adventure tale vividly to life without emphasizing its terrors to an extent that would overwhelm young readers. She fills in additional information on Crean at the back of the book – and both younger and older readers will likely be so captivated by Crean’s story that they will want to find more-in-depth versions elsewhere. Despite this book’s title, Crean was not, of course, indestructible – a burst appendix killed him in 1938, at the age of 61 – but he was intrepid, committed, dutiful and duty-bound, and an exemplar of a kind of quiet heroism that still tends to get short shrift today in favor of greater flamboyance and self-aggrandizement. Thermes does not try to teach any specific lessons from Crean’s life, but his life teaches them on its own – and sensitive, nurturing adults would do well to learn them and pass them along to their children after reading and discussing this book with them.

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