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Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica's Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night Hardcover – May 4, 2021
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“The energy of the narrative never flags. . . . Sancton has produced a thriller.”—The Wall Street Journal
In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica.
But de Gerlache’s plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship’s occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness.
In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton unfolds an epic story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica’s men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition’s lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook—half genius, half con man—whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship’s first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice—one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean’s bottom.
Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica’s crew and with exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep.
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“A vivid horror story . . . thrillingly recounted.”—The New York Review of Books
“As soon as you finish, you want to read it again.”—Daily Mail
“Madhouse at the End of the Earth [is an] exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing account of the Belgica’s disastrous Antarctic expedition. Sancton uses . . . an extraordinary treasure trove . . . to tease out the personalities and fears and rivalries of his subjects [in] his increasingly harrowing descriptions of life on the Belgica.”—The New York Times
“An extraordinary tale of ambition, folly, heroism and survival, superbly told by Julian Sancton, who has rescued the Belgica’s story from relative obscurity and brought it to magnificent life . . . [a] splendid, beautifully written book.”—The Spectator
“I started reading Madhouse at the End of the Earth . . . and I couldn’t stop. [It] reads like an adventure novel [and] is so detailed you can almost smell and taste it.”—Bon Appétit
“Locked down, I craved perilous adventure. Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth delivered. The Belgica’s 1897 South Pole expedition is pure horror. Clueless captain, rat-infested ship frozen into the ice, scurvy, darkness, hunger, insanity . . . terrific stuff.”—The New Statesman, “Books of the Year”
“At once a riveting survival tale and a terrifying psychological thriller, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a mesmerizing, unputdownable read. It deserves a place beside Alfred Lansing’s immortal classic Endurance.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea and Valiant Ambition
“Madhouse is that rare nonfiction gem—an obscure but important history transformed by deep research and note-perfect storytelling into a classic thriller. Reading this book is as much an adventure as the very story it tells.”—Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs
“Madhouse at the End of the Earth has it all: idealism, ingenuity, ambition, explosives, flimflammery, a colorful cast, a blank map, a three-month-long night, penguins (and medicinal penguin meat). . . . A riveting tale, splendidly told.”—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Witches and Cleopatra
“A generation before Shackleton’s Endurance, an adventure every bit as bold and dreadful took place at the bottom of the world, led by a band of unimaginably colorful and resolute explorers. A wild tale, so well told and immersively researched.”—Hampton Sides, nationally bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice
“With meticulous research and a novelist’s keen eye, Sancton has penned one of the most enthralling—and harrowing—adventure stories in years.”—Scott Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Lawrence in Arabia and The Quiet Americans
About the Author
- Publisher : Crown; First Edition (May 4, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1984824333
- ISBN-13 : 978-1984824332
- Item Weight : 1.41 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #47,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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The author goes through important details early but the story is bogged down initially because of it. However, it’s important and I’m glad it was added because it helped me to understand many of the whys and also behaviors that occur later in the story. Without the initial investment of details, the latter more exciting parts would not have made sense to me. So hang in there initially, the story gets very interesting later.
Todays world, I find myself romanticizing about the past and the adventure. This book grounded me to see things more as they were back then and also the tremendous difficulties and sacrifices those men have to further our understanding of the world.
This story clearly shows these men pushed to the extreme of human physical and psychological endurance. I will say no more, no spoilers.
This book is best enjoyed with a cosy blanket, the AC cranked down low, and the soundtrack to “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” playing to set the tone. I would also highly recommend keeping a couple tissues handy - only those that would fail a Turing test would be able to make it through this book without shedding a tear.
De Gerlache’s decision to winter in the ice pack was a risky move, but he decided to put his crew’s lives in danger anyway. It was Cook who kept a majority of them alive by taking measures to alleviate scurvy. As the Belgica stuck fast in the ice for the long, sunless winter months, idleness and darkness would lead to insanity, especially for one poor soul who would never recover. I loved how Dr. Cook’s keen observations allowed him to help his shipmates, and despite the language barrier, he earned their respect and admiration. Amundsen was another likeable fellow, and he would use this Antarctic experience to set many exploration records of his own in the future. This book is another great example of the dangers of polar exploration and how survival is not always guaranteed.
Top reviews from other countries
Among its members were Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook, explorers who would later attempt their own conquests of the North and South Poles.
The description of the events are gathered from first-hand accounts – this was an expedition where a large amount of the crew kept detailed journals, as well as exclusive access to the ship’s logbook – and it tells a compelling story. I have read several books on the subject of polar voyages or shipping disasters in extreme areas of the world – The HMS Terror and Erebus are examples of similar doomed expeditions - but this book is the most detailed and the one that really offers a clear understanding of the fear and hardships these men were forced to harbour and endure.
What is conveyed most strongly in the book is the personalities of those involved – Amundsen and Cook and the commander, Adrien de Gerlache – and we get a wonderful insight into these men’s characters and get to understand what drove them. Frederick Cook, in particular, ended up with the most tarnished reputation after accusations of him falsifying his later exploration achievements and his involvement in a fraud case relating to the start-up of some oil companies and his subsequent imprisonment.
It reads almost as a thriller. The early section of the book draws all the characters together and shows us their backstories and motivations. It paints a strong picture of what life was like at that time. Then, as the expedition progresses, events take on a sinister turn when the captain makes the fateful decision to sail on, into the ice pack, in an effort to chase glory and fame, but also risking the lives of the crew at the same time. And the vessel did indeed get stuck in the ice. With winter drawing in, during a time where sunlight would not appear for many months, the men were forced to endure such a torrid time that even today, NASA's experts planning far-long space exploration flights, use the studies gathered from this voyage as evidence of what extreme isolation can do to the human mind and body. It's simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.
This really is a terrific book, one that will appeal to historians as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The writing is accessible and the nautical terminology easy to understand, and it's rare for non-fiction to be such a page-turner, but Madhouse at the End of the Earth manages to satisfy on every level. Highly recommended.
I had read several books telling the incredible feats of endurance and hardship of expeditions led by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen in attempting to reach the South Pole. I was not even aware of the Belgian expedition's story told in this compelling book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth.
Firstly, it is a gripping tale of the first expedition to over-winter in the Antarctic. This is extraordinary enough...as with all these tests of human resilience in conditions of hardship where the participants themselves choose to go, it is the human element that is the most interesting and it is also a major factor that largely determines the outcome.
But this tale also has two significant characters of polar exploration (North and South): Amundsen and Cook. On this journey the two form a long-lasting bond. The ambitious Amundsen learns and applies some early lessons to cope with the challenges of survival in the hostile Antarctic environment. Meanwhile we learn of Cook's optimistic character and inventiveness, which helped the crew get through their ordeal, but which also formed part of his exaggerated claims to achievements of exploration.
This book is a must read for those interested in polar exploration.
So well written that I am one of the characters, emotionally and physically caught up with all the tribulations and horrors of this journey.
It’s also an eye-opening insight of the human condition.