Well, I thought I had my list of reading priorities all set out, and then I happened to notice that Mitchell’s Zuckoff’s Frozen in Time was available as an e-galley, so I downloaded it. Then I started reading it, and found myself totally absorbed in it. I basically didn’t want to do anything else but read it–well, that is, except for recounting large portions of the story to your dad, and resisting the urge to stop random people on the street and tell them to read it.
This book is actually two exciting adventure stories wrapped into one. The historical story is of three groups of airmen who went down on the Greenland icecap in late 1942. The modern story is of the group of people who, in 2012, went to Greenland to find one of the planes.
In November 1942, a C-53 cargo plane went down while on a routine trip from Iceland to Greenland’s west coast. All five airmen aboard survived the crash, but unfortunately, they had been on the return trip of a cargo run, so had a limited amount of supplies on board. Flying over Greenland can be treacherous at the best of times, and Zuckoff does a great job of describing the geology and meteorology that the airmen faced.
Meanwhile, a brand-new B-17 bomber plane had arrived in Greenland, en route to an American base in England for the war effort. The B-17 was immediately commandeered for the search and rescue effort. As Zuckoff says, “The war would wait, but freezing American airmen wouldn’t.” The B-17 had a six-man crew, plus a mechanic who was hitching a ride to his post in Scotland. On November 9, two additional men, stationed in Greenland, joined them to help look for the C-53. Three hours into the search, a storm struck and the B-17 was lost in a whiteout. The bomber went down, and actually broke in two pieces, with nose and tail sections ending up on the ice, separated by about twelve feet. All nine men survived the crash, although one broke his arm, and others had minor injuries. The nine men set up camp in the broken plane to wait for their own rescue. They were stranded on a glacier that was riddled with crevasses, which made walking treacherous.
Two weeks later, a Grumman Duck, an amphibious plane based on a ship off the coast of Greenland, managed to land a mile or so away from the B-17 and fly out two of the crew. Meanwhile, other men, on motorsleds (the WWII equivalent of jetskis) were approaching by land. One of the two motorsled drivers fell, sled and all, into a crevasse and was lost forever. The Duck came back for its second load, picked up one of the men, and then it, too, went down in a whiteout, with all three men aboard lost. So that left six of the original B-17 airmen, plus the one motorsled driver.
Astonishingly, six of the seven survived on the icecap until they were finally pulled out in March of 1943. At one point, four of the men set out on foot and motorsled to try to make it to a settlement, but they were also stranded. Fortunately, their location was known, and another B-17 was able to make somewhat regular–depending on the weather–supply drops to both the downed plane and the “motorsled camp”, so they never completely ran out of food and other supplies.
So that story was amazing enough, and Zuckoff does a great job of using primary sources and interviews to give us details about just what the men were going through during those long, cold, five months. But interspersed with their story is the story of the team who went to Greenland in 2012 to find the remains of the Grumman Duck. Zuckoff offered his services as team photographer and was in on the negotiations for the expedition early on. He tells a fascinating story of the team organizer, Lou Sapienza, who attempted to get funding from both the government and private sources in his quest to bring back the missing Duck and its crew. In August of 2012, 17 men and women spent a little over a week on the icecap, and at the very last possible moment before they had to leave, found the remains of the Duck.
The modern tale is like a treasure hunt, as Sapienza and others pored over maps and reports of sightings, and used modern imaging techniques to pinpoint the location of the downed plane.
What makes this a truly gripping adventure/survival story is the way that Zuckoff–in both the modern and historical narratives–focuses on people. He tells their stories sympathetically but honestly, making the reader feel the physical and emotional ups and downs they went through . This is narrative nonfiction at its finest, telling a little-known but compelling story about real people facing unimaginable trials. At one point in the book, Zuckoff makes a self-deprecating comparison of himself to Jon Krakauer, but Frozen in Time is likely to appeal to the fans of Krakauer’s works like Into the Wild and Into Thin Air.
The book is due out in April from Harper.
Oh, and one last thing: I don’t think I’ll plan to go to Greenland anytime soon. I’m sure it’s beautiful and has its good points, but it sounds like a pretty scary place to me!