Shackleton, Endurance and Reindeer Sleeping Bags

Let me say this up front: I am an avid reader of fiction. Non-fiction, not so much. I prefer the prose and storylines of novels over biographies or (gasp) historical accounts. A big “however” though. However, when non-fiction is good, it’s pretty darn great. Seabiscuit by Laura Hildenbrand, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote come to mind in my “however” category.


But nothing I’ve read recently–fiction or non-fiction–holds a candle to Endurance by Alfred Lansing. Its the story of Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. I read the book jacket before I began the book and saw clearly that every member of the expedition survives but I was still on pins and needles.


In a nutshell: Endurance was a specially designed boat built to endure Antarctic oceans. It didn’t. It got stuck in the ice and crumpled like a candy wrapper then sunk. The men were left stranded on the ice, which they traversed pulling smaller boats. They sailed to an island. Shackleton left the island to sail with a small crew for help. This is where the reindeer sleeping bags come into play. Let’s just say that when they get wet, they don’t work very well.


I think high school students could easily read this book and get engrossed in it. Teachers could dive into themes like:


-Leadership–Shackleton may not have been an easy personality but his leadership and ability to save every man on his crew is something that could be discussed at length. The passages that describe how he dealt with difficult crew members are fascinating.

-Relationships–The crew were friends, helped each other, saved each other, and even performed surgery on one another. Although there were tense times, it’s amazing they didn’t all kill each other in the cramped hold of the boats or stranded on an island for months with nothing to do.

-Need to explore–Shackleton was driven by the need to explore and do something no other man ever had. So was his crew. Why? WWI was breaking out and there was chaos in Europe but Shackleton’s supporters (including Winston Churchill) encouraged him to continue with his journey. Why?


Finally, a modern day tie-in. A group of explorers and environmentalists is re-creating Shackleton’s journey in the smaller ship Epic as we speak. They are posting on Facebook ( and blogging on their website ( They’re journey is almost as gripping as the orignal!


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