Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618
Hall made her reputation in library science, but she, like Nansen, did not concentrate on one type of work only. For this book, she traveled to Norway, where she had access to Nansen’s unpublished personal diaries and other writings and speeches. Because Nansen was published in 1940, it reflects the limits of its time. Because World War II had not yet occurred, World War I was the greatest catastrophe yet known. Furthermore, as biographies often did in those years, Nansen shows an undisguised admiration for its subject.
Despite these limitations, there are several reasons why this biography might continue to interest young readers. First, as schools attempt to improve multicultural education, Nansen presents a little-known but admirable person from Norway and shows how his environment influenced him. Second, Nansen’s life bursts with energy in sports, exploration, science, and scholarly study. In his later years, he was known for his work for the poor and neglected of the world. He could prove to be a hero for young people whose interests lie in any of these fields. Third, Hall’s writing is very fine, full of vigorous passages that place the reader directly into the scenes. At one point, the reader vicariously experiences long frozen days and nights in a tiny hut in the Arctic Circle. At another time, one accompanies and appreciates the quiet reflective walks that Nansen cherished in Norway’s dark forests. Near the end of the book, the young reader anguishes with Nansen over the misery of the refugee camps after World War I and feels the frustration that he endures as he attempts to work through the bureaucratic channels to improve situations.
Although Hall clearly demonstrates her admiration of Nansen, she does not neglect to point out some of his failures and weaknesses. She mentions that he was always disappointed when people did not act reasonably, although he did not always meet that standard himself. On a skiing trip, for example, he stubbornly refused to use a disk staff, although this refusal seriously handicapped him from keeping up with his fellow skiers. He cared little for the opinions of other people and concentrated only on what interested him, neglecting other concerns. Such failings, however, are balanced by the description of Nansen as an energetic, generous, dedicated, and caring individual. Hall claims that he was completely deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1922, the cash award of which he gave away entirely. Nansen comes across as a larger-than-life human being, but clearly one who shares human weaknesses.
A large portion of the book is made up of explanations of Nansen’s work as a scientist and explorer, giving an excellent introduction to the concepts involved without becoming overly technical. As such, Nansen is also useful to would-be scientists.
Although the book makes no attempt to trace the history of Norway or the history of northern exploration, it is obviously a book of praise for Norway as much as for Nansen. According to the text, because Norway was only an independent country from the beginning of the twentieth century, it has had few heroes. This is one of the reasons that Nansen achieved such fame in his own country and that Norwegians were so proud of him when he became known throughout the world. Nansen could give students some new insights into Norway as a separate country and not one simply grouped together with other Scandinavian countries.
To many people, Nansen has become a forgotten hero, and his work with the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I is overshadowed by the devastation of World War II. This book could serve as a beginning to renewed interest in the early twentieth century.
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