I love narrative nonfiction, and in discussing this genre, two titles that inevitably come up as outstanding examples of nonfiction perfectly crafted into a narrative structure are Five Days at Memorial and In the Kingdom of Ice. Let’s talk about them!
Physician and journalist Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial takes an unflinchingly in-depth look at the harrowing few days immediately following Hurricane Katrina from the perspective of the overburdened Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.
It’s strangely readable and page-turning given the uncomfortable subject matter, and that’s really to Fink’s credit and her ability to weave these disturbing events into such a focused, well-written narrative. It’s immersive, feeling more like watching a documentary of these things happening. Fink describes scenes so vividly that it’s almost a shock to remember she wasn’t actually there and is piecing it all together from multiple accounts and sources. Of course, this can be difficult material to immerse in, considering the death and suffering that are described, much of which was avoidable, but neither do I think it’s something we should look away from when the implications are so serious.
It raises a lot of thorny ethical questions about the actions of doctors and medical personnel, and that’s extremely difficult knowledge to sit with. The latter part of the book covers the justice that was pursued here, which only leads to more difficult questions. It’s thought-provoking and has deep reverberations still, because the issues it tackles through this storytelling — of scarcity, government response to disaster, and inequality or accessibility of medical care under the uneven US system, are ones that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and obviously play major roles in the discourse right now.
The social aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is one of the most impacting events of our time, especially relevant now as it’s frequently compared to the coronavirus pandemic. So this felt eye-opening for understanding something around the kind of ethical questions that arise in a disaster scenario and the choices it’s led to, and also to consider the immense pressure the medical establishment is under and ideas around the rationing of health care. This especially is a topic we’re confronting again, and will increasingly have to face as economic disparity increases in the aftermath of the pandemic which has disproportionately ravaged communities and citizens that were already economically disadvantaged to begin with. A weighty but necessary read. published 2013 by Crown (Amazon / Book Depository)
Moving on to another tragic tale, but from the deep depths of history so without the immediate, terrifying consequences! There was a time when “It was hard to comprehend how profoundly the world needed to scratch the Arctic itch.” The North Pole hadn’t yet been reached, and ambitious Americans really wanted to be the first ones to trek this tantalizingly uncharted territory. This led to the 1879 voyage from San Francisco to the Arctic of the USS Jeannette, led by Captain George Washington De Long with a crew of 32 men.
The Jeannette got stuck in encroaching pack ice, which eventually tore through its hull and sunk the ship after slowly moving it along for two years. The survivors were left stranded north of Siberia and faced unimaginable hardships and challenges, like traversing this most inhospitable landscape with severely limited resources while suffering starvation, exhaustion, illness, and madness.
It took me awhile to get into this one but once I did I could hardly put it down. I’m not particularly keen on adventure epics but it does turn out to be pretty thrilling with fascinating historical asides, and the narrative was brilliantly structured. Sides fleshes out many of the figures involved and their personalities, giving this such a dramatic, almost theatrical feel. Some, like one of the financiers of the voyage, are delightfully larger-than-life eccentrics, and others, like the men of the Jeannette, come into deeper focus as the time stranded on ice took a toll.
If they had not really gone anywhere, they had journeyed into regions of the psyche where few men had ever been, interior spaces that brought out aspects of themselves they’d never known existed. In ways few could imagine, the true grain of their characters had been revealed.
Two years locked in the ice were nothing in comparison to the perilous journey they faced when the Jeannette finally sank, leaving them shelter-less in three small boats. That was when their troubles really began, particularly when the boats got separated.
The narrative shifts to follow the story of the ship Corwin and its captain Calvin Hooper, sent to look for the Jeannette when it became obvious that the worst had befallen it. Even that was quite the challenge, albeit an interesting one: “As Hooper stopped at tiny settlements along the Siberian coast, a story began to emerge, filtered through multiple languages, its details distorted from having traveled by word of mouth from village to village. ”
This latter portion of the book was by far the highlight for me, partially because the Jeannette‘s survivors enter Siberia, which made for an incredibly compelling story, heightened by the tension that they were finally so close to rescue. Still, the difficulties of traveling across the Lena wastelands of farthest Siberia in winter set the scene for some of the hardest moments in the story.
It’s eerie and atmospheric and really where Sides’ storytelling ability shines: “Much of their journey seemed like a dream, a long whiteout of undifferentiated days punctuated by a few moments of haunting clarity: A snowy owl staring at them. A pile of decrepit sleds they smashed up for firewood. The corpse of a native buried in a box on a hill. A crow, circling and circling and circling.”
I didn’t love it as much as my favorite ship disaster-themed narrative nonfiction (don’t we all have one?) In the Heart of the Sea, but it’s quite an engrossing tale and an impressive work of history. published 2014 by Doubleday (Amazon / Book Depository)
Have you read either of these? Any other narrative nonfiction on your shelves lately, disaster and/or ship-related or otherwise?