(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Bill Streever tackles many subjects in Cold, an engaging, wide-ranging history-cum-journal. These include winter survival; catastrophic weather; polar expeditions; scientific studies of thermodynamics, including the search for absolute zero; glaciation; hibernation; the cycle of ice ages; and climate change. His nonlinear text does not, however, discuss these topics straightforwardly, chapter by chapter. Only Streever’s journal entries are in chronological order, while biographical narratives and scientific histories are interspersed among them. These interwoven narratives may be relinquished early, only to be amplified in later chapters. The journal, meanwhile, covers Streever’s life from July, 2006, to June, 2007.

Streever’s journal recounts more than one occasion on which he exposed himself to conditions that would have been fatally cold had he not been able to extricate himself from them. Each chapter offers information about cold weather and its effects, as well as human effects upon the weather. The book begins by demonstrating what happens to the human body under extremely cold conditions. In a summer swim in the thirty-five-degree waters of Prudhoe Bay, in northernmost Alaska, Streever describes his sensations to a companion, who times his immersion for five minutes. Within moments, Streever’s extremities become numb. At three minutes, he begins to shiver. At four minutes, his skin seems to sting and burn. The seconds pass, his muscles tensing, his mind wandering. After spending five minutes in the bay, it takes him two hours to regain a feeling of warmth.

Streever’s narrative alternates facts with drama, geographical data with animal behavior, mortality statistics with stories of heroics and loss. For example, he reports that Barrow, Alaska, has the coldest average yearly temperature of any community in the United States, just under 10° Fahrenheit. Then, he elaborates that it is the home of arctic foxes and polar bears and also among the oldest permanent settlements in the country. When starving European explorers first appeared in what would become Barrow, Native Americans there were flourishing. Their name for the site was “a place for hunting snowy owls.” Elsewhere, Streever juxtaposes the fact that a cumulonimbus cloud can hold 500,000 tons of water with accounts of an English youth who was killed by a falling icicle in 1776 and of a 1974 incident in which an eighteen-inch block of ice fell from an airplane and smashed into the hood of a woman’s car.

Each chapter includes diary entries. In February’s chapter, for example, Streever informs readers of the then-current temperatures in several American cities. He reports that a thawed creek has flooded an Anchorage office building and ruined its computers and that, at an Alaskan zoo, a brown bear woke up and opted to go lie out in the sunshine. After establishing background details, he summarizes conversations with scientists, conference attendees, miners, friends, and family members as he travels the world to research the present and history of cold temperatures.

Particularly arresting are Streever’s accounts of tragedy, which he begins describing within the first few pages as he treads water in Prudhoe Bay. He encapsulates episodes that he will expand upon later, including the Adolphus Greely expedition to the Arctic in 1883; the School Children’s Blizzard of January, 1888; and Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous 1910 race to the South Pole, which he lost to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. When Streever goes into detail, drawing upon pioneers’ journals and contemporary newspaper accounts, armchair explorers may shiver and wonder what drove those men (they were always men) into such unlivable terrains and horrifying conditions. Streever writes, “When one reads past the stoicism and heroics, the history of polar exploration becomes one long accident report mixed with one long obituary.”

Greely was a U.S. Army officer who was put in charge of twenty-five men sent to Ellesmere Island, in far northern Canada, just west of Greenland. Only six members of the expedition survived; the rest died of starvation, drowning, or freezingexcept the one whom Greely ordered shot for stealing food. It is likely that some of the dead were cannibalized. Two rescue attempts failed. When the survivors were finally reached in 1884, a...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Economist 392, no. 8642 (August 1, 2009): 73.

Harper’s Magazine, August, 2009, pp. 73-74.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 12 (June 15, 2009): 650.

Library Journal 134, no. 8 (May 1, 2009): 97.

Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2009, p. D-8.

The New Scientist 203, no. 2718 (July 25, 2009): 49.

The New York Times, July 24, 2009, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review, July 26, 2009, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 17 (April 27, 2009): 121.