Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven

The title of this book is a little deceiving. While Ada Blackjack is featured prominently in the book, this is more the telling of all the explorers on the Wrangel Island expedition. As much detail is given to the other four explorers and their families as is given about Blackjack herself.

Ada Blackjack was an impoverished woman living in Alaska. Because of her limited income, she was forced to put her son in a home while she tried to earn money for the both of them. When she was hired on as a seamstress and cook for the Wrangel Island expedition, she had no idea what she would be getting herself into. Wrangel Island is a desolate piece of land in the arctic that is only reachable by boat in the summer months. It is possible to travel the ice floes in the winter to get there, but that is highly dangerous as well. The purpose of this mission, put together by Vilhjalmur Steffanson, was to prove that anywhere could be hospitable, and to claim (for his intention, not their’s) the Island for the British (or Canadian, whoever would have him).

Steffanson enlisted four men to be among the first up there. These men were Fred Maurer (who had been there before), Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle. They gathered what supplies they thought they needed, and with all other help abandoning them before they left, took Ada as the only other person with them. A noticeable mention should be given to the dog team that they took with them, and the cat Vic.

After arriving on the Island things started on a positive note. But they soon discovered that the game because scarce through the winter. When their ship failed to show the following summer and supplies were running low, three of the able bodied men (Knight was sick with Scurvy) set off across the ice floes for help. Left on her own with Knight, and later completely alone, Ada had to try to survive on her own until her rescue over two years after they had first landed on the island.

The rest of the book details the controversy and lies spread about Ada. The books and papers plagiarized and sensationalized were also written extensively about. A good deal of detail about the four men’s families and also Ada’s life after the rescue was given as well.

Niven tells the story well. It is very detail oriented and presented much like a documentary. Her writing is clear and easy to understand and she describes the explorers well. I do think she tended to place too much focus on some of the details such as the papers and journals controversy. I would have much preferred to learn more about Ada. Also, while I appreciated the background on all the explorers, I think the title of her book was misleading as I expected the majority of the book to be about Ada, which to me it was not.

What Ada went through is remarkable. While she was only on her own for two months I know that I could never survive as she did. She had to rely on her own stamina and teach herself things in the harshest of conditions with no certain hope for rescue. That takes a lot of bravery. I am also glad that after all the ridicule and rumors spread about Ada, Niven takes the time to detail everything that happened and get the truth out. Reading this book has made me want to take a look at her other books and I definitely look forward to reading them. I highly recommend this work of non-fiction for any interested in the Arctic, or for anyone looking for a telling of a remarkable woman’s plight.

Ada Blackjack
Copyright 2003
394 pages plus an epilogue, couple sections of pictures, end notes and map.